Poland's Got Talent
The unwary might find it a bit of a coin-toss as to what kind of crowd they could reasonably expect when turning up to a foreign language preview screening at the Phoenix – sometimes you can have the place to yourself, at others it can be busting at the seams. But perhaps it's not quite that random: it's not really surprising that a Franco-Belgian film should struggle to attract a crowd on the night that France and Belgium are playing each other in the World Cup semi-final (the auditorium was at about 3% of capacity for Racer and the Jailbird) while the size of the potential Polish audience in the UK is so well-known that even the big multiplexes are routinely showing commercial films from that part of the world. So maybe it's not such a surprise that the advance screening of Pawel Pawlikowski's new film, Cold War, should have been quite so popular. Honestly, I was lucky to get a seat – I hadn't seen so many Poles in one place since the last time I watched the giant slalom on TV.
Pawlikowski is a film-maker whose parents moved with him to the UK when he was still a teenager. He rose to prominence in the early years of this century with English-language films like Last Resort and My Summer of Love, but his recent work has concerned itself with a more specifically Polish sensibility.
Filmed in pristine black and white, the film opens in the war-ravaged Poland of 1949, where a young people's choir is being established to preserve and celebrate the traditional music of the peasantry. In charge of proceedings is distinguished musician Wiktor (Tomazs Kot), and one of the singers he selects for the project is Zula (Joanna Kulig), a girl whose slightly suspect personal background is more than made up for by her remarkable vocal talent.
The choir is initially successful, but things inevitably become more complicated: Wiktor and Zula begin a relationship, which one would have to describe as illicit on a number of levels, while the ethnographic idealism of the project gradually becomes tainted by the demands of its government sponsors – as well as performing the old folk tunes of the Polish mountains, they find themselves obliged to include a few numbers about the inevitable triumph of World Communism and zippy tunes about how wonderful Stalin is.
Becoming thoroughly disillusioned with it all, Wiktor sees a trip to Berlin as a great opportunity to make a bit of a change in both their lives and suggests to Zula that they escape to the west (this is still pre-Berlin Wall). But Zula is unsure about this, and the decisions that they both make will end up shaping the rest of their lives...
If you're anything like me, the first thing you think when you hear about a film called Cold War is that it will be some kind of thriller with a mid-20th century setting. And it is true that the political situation across Europe inevitably casts a long shadow over the events of the story here. However, what Pawlikowski has created here mainly combines elements of drama and romance, in a film which is almost to some extent a diegetic musical.
I get told off for using big words hereabouts sometimes, so permit me to explain what I'm on about: this isn't one of those 'invisible orchestra' musicals where someone wandering down the street suddenly bursts into song with the accompaniment of a full string section. All of the songs in this film, and there are quite a few, arise naturally from the doings of the choirs, singers, and musicians it concerns. The music is strikingly beautiful and one of the things you remember most strongly from the film (I should point out that it's all in either Polish or French, like most of the rest of the movie); the brief dance segments are also impressively choreographed and filmed.
Doing most of the heavy lifting in the vocal department is Joanna Kulig, for whom this film is an exceptional showcase. Not only does she get to show just what a fine pair of lungs she possesses, but the character arc of the film is also demanding and she executes it extremely well. I should also point out the almost uncanny way in which Kulig, an actor in her mid thirties, convincingly portrays someone who begins the film in (one presumes) her late teens and then proceeds to age a decade and a half in the course of the story. Kot has less singing to do, but also delivers an assured and convincing performance; the pair make for an authentic, affecting couple.
As you might expect, though, this is no chocolate box romance: Wiktor and Zula are apart for years at a time, and even when they are together things are turbulent, troubled, torrid, and possibly other adjectives also beginning with T. The narrative covers decades and takes place in many countries; this is possibly why some commentators are describing Cold War as an epic masterpiece of cinema. Well, maybe: it's certainly a very fine film, but on the other hand it seems very odd to be describing a film as an epic when it is well shy of ninety minutes in length. It is an exceptional miniature more than anything else – in fact, I would say that it almost feels like a proof-of-concept for a much longer, more expansive and reflective film, where the characters are given more time to grow and there is more space to enjoy the settings and emotions that Pawlikoski is obliged to sketch in only quite briefly here.
This is particularly apparent as the film approaches its conclusion. It's very difficult not to interpret this as the director's admission that, when it really comes down to it, you can never completely sever your connection with your homeland: characters return to Poland and the Polish language in both a literal and metaphorical sense. But in strictly narrative terms, I found the conclusion of this film to be a little wanting – events and decisions taking place too abruptly to completely satisfy. The final line of the film, about the view from the other side being much more beautiful – no real spoiler out of context – is loaded with multiple meanings, and will stay with me. But I still wanted more. This is a very good film in every respect, but one which feels unnaturally curtailed in almost every respect. A more expansive and lavish treatment of this story, done with the same style and skill, could have produced something truly exceptional.