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Cold War 2018

Cold War | Zimna Wojna

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About the Cold War 💬


COLD WAR is dedicated to Pawel Pawlikowski's parents, whose names the protagonists share.

The real Wiktor and Zula died in 1989, just before the Berlin Wall came down. They had spent the previous 40 years together, on and off, breaking up, chasing and punishing each other on both sides of the Iron Curtain. 'They were both strong, wonderful people, but as a couple a neverending disaster,' Pawlikowski reflects.

Although, in factual details, the filmmaker's fictional couple is quite unlike the real one, Pawlikowski has been mulling over ways to tell his parents' story for almost a decade. How to render all the toing and froing? What to do about the extended period of time? 'Their life had no obvious dramatic shape,' he says, and 'although my parents and I remained very close - I was their only child - the more I thought about them once they were gone, the less I understood them'. Despite the difficulty, he continued to try and fathom the mystery of that relationship. 'I've lived for a long time and seen a lot, but my parents' story put all the other ones in the shadow. They were the most interesting dramatic characters I've ever come across.'

Eventually, in order to write the film, he had to make it not about his parents. The shared traits became very general: 'temperamental incompatibility, not being able to be together, and yearning when you're apart'; 'the difficulty of life in exile, of staying yourself in a different culture'; 'the difficulty of life under a totalitarian regime, of behaving decently despite the temptations not to'. The result is a strong, stirring story broadly inspired, as Pawlikowski puts it, by his parents' 'complicated and disrupted love'.

For the fictional Wiktor and Zula, Pawlikowski imagined distinct backstories.

Unlike his own mother - who did run away to the ballet when she was 17 but was from a traditional upper-middle-class background - Zula comes from the wrong side of the tracks in a drab provincial town. She pretends to be from the country in order to get into a folk ensemble, which she sees as a way out of poverty. In the film, she's rumored to have done time for murdering her abusive father. 'He mistook me for my mother so I used a knife to show him the difference,' she tells Wiktor. She can sing and dance, she has chutzpah and charm and a chip on her shoulder, and by the time she's a star in the ensemble she understands that she's gone as far as she can. 'For Zula, Communism is just fine,' Pawlikowski says. 'She has no interest in escaping to the West'.

The fictional Wiktor, on the other hand, is from a much more refined and educated world and is clearly a gifted musician. 'He is calm and stable, comes from the urban intelligentsia and is grounded in high culture, and he needs her energy,' Pawlikowski says. Privately, he imagined that Wiktor had been sent to study music in Paris before the war, under Nadia Boulanger. Then during the German Occupation, he made a living playing the piano, illegally, in Warsaw cafes - as did, incidentally, the great Polish composers Lutosławski and Panufnik. Though a very skilled pianist, with classical training, Wiktor didn't have what it took to become a great composer. And anyway his real passion was jazz.

The clues about his past are in the music. In the scene in the film in which Wiktor plays a melody on the piano for Zula to sing back to him, the tune is 'I Loves You Porgy', from George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess. For those who recognize it, the signal is clear: Wiktor has been in the West. 'After the war, with the emergence of the Stalinist regime in Poland, he doesn't know what to do with himself,' Pawlikowski elaborates. Jazz was banned by the Stalinists, as was 'formalist' modern classical music. In Pawlikowski's mind, Wiktor was never very interested in Polish folk music, but when he meets Irena with her folk ensemble project, he realizes this could be a useful a gig for a man at a loose end. His desire to escape grows when the folk ensemble starts to be used by the regime for political purposes, and when he discovers that he's being spied on by State Security. The last straw is when Irena, with whom he has also had a fling, gets the sack for not toeing the line. He knows he will never find musical or any kind of freedom in People's Poland, that he will always be regarded as suspect and that the compromises required in order to survive will eventually undo him. Escape to the West is the only solution.


Whether Communism expanded or limited the life options for Pawlikowski's protagonists, its pressures should be understood as being in the background at all times. When Zula admits that she's been snitching on Wiktor, you know that her betrayal is, from her point of view, a flagrant act of survival.

Pawlikowski expects that in Poland, which is obsessively re-living and re-interpreting its past these days, he'll be attacked for not sufficiently spelling out the horrors of Communism, of not 'showing more terror and suffering at the hands of the communist regime'. But the sense of threat in the film is all the more palpable for being largely unspoken, and its purpose is always to show the intimate impact of politics on character... Does Wiktor, for instance, become less manly in exile? It's certainly something Pawlikowski thought of his own father, a doctor - he was a brave, outspoken man at home, yet in the West, he seemed to be afraid when facing a bank manager.

When the Culture Minister asks the troupe to add songs about Agricultural Reform and World Peace to their repertoire, Irena objects, but the ambitious Kaczmarek overrides her, and before long the ensemble is singing odes to Stalin. But the effect of this brief, manipulative exchange is to show Wiktor under pressure - he says nothing, and this marks the beginning of his career in slipperiness and self-erasure.

Pawlikowski remembers a general atmosphere of tension from his childhood in Warsaw. 'At home everyone spoke their minds, but you had to be careful about what you said at school.' His parents briefly had a maid from the country, who slept on a fold-up bed in the kitchen of their one-bedroom flat. 'She had an affair with a state security guy,' he remembers, 'and snitched on us'. What was there to snitch about? 'Parcels from the West, listening to the BBC or Radio Free Europe... My father had a copy of Der Spiegel, banned as all other Western publications, which one day disappeared from the flat'. On one occasion, the whole family went through the dustbins in the middle of the night, in an attempt to retrieve an incriminating letter that Pawlikowski's father had accidentally thrown away. In 1968 student demonstrations broke out in Warsaw. (Pawlikowski would have been 10.) 'The center was full of tear gas,' he recalls. 'And in our flat there was a bleeding student of my mother's (she was then a lecturer at Warsaw University) waiting for the situation to calm down.'

To Polish viewers, the similarities between the government shown in the film and the government currently in power may seem marked: the anti-Western, nationalistic rhetoric; the primitive propaganda in the state media; the climate of fear, crisis, and resentment engineered to shore up the support of healthy simple folk against decadent and treacherous elites - for people who lived through Communism all this feels eerily familiar. The character of Kaczmarek, the resentful provincial careerist spouting useful phrases to get ahead, is also bound to ring a bell for Polish audiences. But COLD WAR is not about politics. History is just the context that helps to dramatize something more universal.


'Mazowsze has been around ever since I can remember. When I was a kid, the state radio and TV was full of their music. The official music of the people. You couldn't get away from that stuff. It was seen as uncool and absurd among my friends, who'd much rather listen to bootlegged recordings of the Small Faces or the Kinks. But when I saw Mazowsze live five years ago, I was totally gripped. The melodies, the voices, the dances, the arrangements were so beautiful and vital. And so far removed from our virtual world and electronic culture. They swept you away.'

Mazowsze (named after an area of Poland) was founded in 1949 by the Polish composer Tadeusz Sygietyński and his wife, the actress Mira Ziminska. They went into the Polish countryside to collect folk songs, for which Sygietyński then made new arrangements. Ziminska re-worked their lyrics and made the costumes (inspired by traditional peasant outfits from different regions). The original impetus was a genuine interest in the traditions and the music - a little along the lines of what Woody Guthrie was doing in the United States - and Pawlikowski also mixed in details from the work of Marian and Jadwiga Sobieski - another couple of musical ethnographers who traveled the land and made direct recordings like the ones made by Wiktor and Irena in the film.

And just as the fictional Mazurek ensemble is in the film, the Mazowsze was co-opted by the Communist government, who saw it as a useful propaganda tool. The songs of the people were pitted against the decadent art of the bourgeoisie - jazz or 12-tone music. 'Mazowsze did tour all Warsaw Pact capitals and go to Moscow,' Pawlikowski says, 'and they did dance in front of Stalin and sing a number called The Stalin Cantata'.

Though Pawlikowski began his career in documentaries and is always rigorous in his nonornamental approach to filmmaking, he doesn't replicate the historical facts but makes the music stand for much of what the story contains: sex and exile, passion and transposition. Pawlikowski, who has played jazz piano himself, listened to all the tunes sung by the Mazowsze COLD WAR(ZIMNA WOJNA) and chose three he thought could be echoed throughout the film in different forms. He turned the Mazowsze standard Two Hearts first into a simple rural tune, sung by a young peasant girl, and then into a haunting jazz number sung in French by Zula, who has become an ethereal Fifties chanteuse in Paris.

Everything that's unspoken about love and loss - and about what separates the pair from each other - is carried in the music.

In this crucial work, Pawlikowski found a gifted collaborator: the pianist and arranger Marcin Masecki, whom he first met while casting for the lead role. 'Masecki’s a cool customer' Pawlikowski says. 'Musically speaking, he would have made the perfect Wiktor. He's an adventurer in music, brave and wildly eclectic. He recorded all of Chopin's Nocturnes from memory, and Beethoven sonatas with noise-canceling headphones on, in order to replicate the composer's experience of being deaf. He loves playing rag-times, or improvising in bars and restaurants, where he anonymously eavesdrops on people's conversations and lets them guide his musical meanderings. He also traveled up and down the country arranging music for local fire brigade orchestras.'

All of the jazz numbers in the film were arranged - and the piano parts performed - by Masecki.

In the end, Masecki didn't work out as the lead. Apart from lacking acting experience, he didn't quite have the right look. Wiktor needed to have a distinctly pre-war aura, and Tomasz Kot, who Pawlikowski eventually cast, was perfect in that regard. But when Pawlikowski used Masecki to help him try out the scene in which Joanna Kulig (Zula) sings back the Gershwin melody, their musical encounter was electric, almost erotic. It confirmed to Pawlikowski that music would be key in the story of Wiktor and Zula.

'By the way,' adds Pawlikowski, 'the casting of Zula was a far more straightforward affair. Joanna was there from the start. I knew her well from my previous films. She's a friend. Her character, her musical possibilities, and her charm were always in the back my head when I was writing Zula's character'.


Anyone who has seen Pawlikowski's previous film, Ida, may immediately recognize the black and white images and near-square format, and imagine these things to be a conscious 'signature'. In fact, Pawlikowski originally meant to make COLD WAR in color.

'I didn't want to repeat myself. But when I looked at all the color options,' he says, 'by elimination, I realized I couldn't do this film in color because I had no idea what the color it would be. Poland wasn't like the States, which in the Fifties, was all saturated color. In Poland the color was nondescript, kind of grey/brown/green.' This, he says, was not a matter of photographic possibilities, but of actual life. 'Poland was destroyed. The cities were in ruins, there was no electricity in the countryside. People were wearing dark and grey colors. So if you wanted to show that in vivid color, it would be totally fake. And I did want the film to be vivid. We could have imitated the early Soviet color stock - which was slightly off, all washed out reds greens. But nowadays this would have felt very mannered. Black and white felt like a straightforward, honest convention. To make the film more dramatic and dynamic we enhanced the contrast, especially in the Paris section.'

As for the 1:1.33 aspect ratio, familiar from Ida (and known as 'Academy format'), it's something that comes naturally to Pawlikowski. All his early documentaries were shot on 16mm with a similar aspect ratio. He adds, 'Academy format also helps if you don't have much money for production design, because you don't have to show so much of the world'. When he wanted to show more of the world with this restricted width, he and his DP Lukasz Żal simply put the camera higher up and composed in depth, with elements of the landscape and people arranged higher, in near and distant background.

In the prayer-like Ida, the camera was static except for one shot - the mise en scène happened within still, carefully composed frames. The film’s photographic style had a lot to do with the contemplative, withdrawn nature of the film. COLD WAR is a much more dramatic and dynamic affair. Pawlikowski decided to let the camera move - 'but only for good reasons'. The heroine has a lot of compulsive energy and moves a lot, so the camera follows her. Another motive for occasional tracks and pans was the music, itself a dramatic character that carries the film. In any case, the decision of whether or when to move the camera was purely functional and had nothing to do with the stylistic convention.

'All these choices came naturally and felt entirely logical,' Pawlikowski explains. 'There was nothing intellectual about them, they just feel like part of this film. Once you actually find the shape of the film, the film starts dictating everything - when you over-light, over-explain, or use the wrong line, gesture or the wrong framing, it immediately jumps out. There's this great moment in a shoot when you feel the film starts to direct itself and all you need to do is pay attention. You can fantasize before you shoot, devise all sorts of shots and lines, but when you start shooting, you think: ''This is too fancy'', or ''This feels wrong, or like something from a movie''.'

  • 1949-1964: THE GAPS IN THE STORY

COLD WAR takes place over 15 years, and although it is sequential, there are ellipses. Years at a time are left out, and the audience, guided by intermittent blackouts and titles noting the time and place, must fill in the blanks.

Pawlikowski explains that he chose to do it this way 'so as not to have to tell the story in bad scenes with bad dialogue. Very often films, especially biopics, are weighed down by the need to feed information and explain; and the narrative is often reduced to causes and effects. But in life, there are so many hidden causes and unpredictable effects - so much ambiguity and mystery that it's hard to convey it as conventional cause and effect drama. It's better to just show the strong and significant moments in the story and let the audience fill in the gaps with their own imagination and experience of life. I like to distill stories into strong beats, put them side by side and let the audience experience and make sense of the story, without feeling manipulated.'

The overall effect is that the star-crossed aspect of the lovers - everything that is miscommunicated or left silent - is reflected in the structure of the film itself, leaving the audience to piece things together as much as the characters in it must.


Poland, 1949: When the film opens, Poland is still struggling to get out of the war. There’s no electricity in the countryside. Warsaw is in ruins. Wiktor and Irena, like a pair of musical ethnographers, travel the countryside in search of what remains of its original folklore. The resulting project, the ensemble Mazurek, is a success and before long it gets co-opted by the apparatchiks.

East Berlin, 1952: Mazurek, now singing an ode to Stalin - as requested by the Polish Ministry of Culture - is invited to perform at the International Festival of Youth in East Berlin. 'Berlin today, Moscow tomorrow,' muses Kaczmarek, the troupe's apparatchik manager. Wiktor hears it differently. This is the moment he was waiting for, his one and only chance to escape. East and West Berlin were not yet divided by the Wall. It was still, officially, an open city, but if you were from the East and got picked up by the Russians, you would be imprisoned. When Wiktor crosses into West Berlin, he knows the risk he is taking. He also knows he can never go back and his life will change forever. Zula knows this too... She doesn't show up. Wiktor crosses into the West on his own.

Paris, 1954: Wiktor is playing piano in a jazz club. Zula turns up at the bar where he is waiting for her. There is no direct explanation for her presence in Paris, but their awkward, halting dialogue implies that Mazurek has traveled here in order to perform, for the first time outside the Eastern Bloc. They are, needless to say, under close surveillance by the Polish State Security minders, which is why Zula, who has slipped away unnoticed, can only stay for 5 minutes before her absence is noticed. (This episode was, incidentally, inspired by a real event: during Mazowsze's first Western outing, to Paris in 1954, one of its members managed to give the minders a slip and defect.) Two years after their separation, the former lovers speak awkwardly, barely addressing the reason she never joined him in Berlin. Then she leaves.

Split, Yugoslavia, 1955: The troupe is performing in the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. The country is technically non-aligned, independent of the Soviet Bloc, so it's relatively safe for Wiktor - now a resident in France traveling on a Nansen passport of stateless person - to come there to see Zula. She is stunned to see him in the audience during the performance. Before they can meet, though, he gets picked up during the interval and taken away by Yugoslav state security men, who've been tipped off by Kaczmarek, who'd asked for his arrest and extradition to Poland. Thankfully, the local secret police don't want any diplomatic trouble. They want the stateless Pole out of the way, so they put him on the first train out of Yugoslavia.

Paris, 1957: Zula comes to find Wiktor in Paris. By now, she has married an Italian, and (after 1956) if you managed to marry a Westerner, unless you had state secrets to divulge, you could leave Poland legally. She has not escaped.

Poland, 1959: After the breakdown of their relationship in Paris - where everything was set fair for their happiness - Zula returns home legally to resume her show business career there. When Wiktor follows her back to Poland, he knows what's going to happen. In this respect, understanding the political risks is key to the romantic drama: if he knows he is going to get arrested and possibly sentenced to hard labor, why does he go back to find her? Because that is exactly how much he needs to be with her.

Poland, 1964: Zula, now washed up and drunk, and the mother of a small boy, has married Kaczmarek in an unspoken deal to get Wiktor out of prison. Kaczmarek is now a big shot in the Ministry of Culture and has helped his wife with a career as a cheesy socialist pop star. Wiktor, meanwhile, has ended up in a penal colony, working in a quarry. He's has had his right hand mutilated and can no longer play the piano.

They agree to get each other out of their respective situations and return to the ruined orthodox church where the whole story started.


One of the striking aspects of COLD WAR - which has also been said of Ida - is that it feels like a film made at the time in which it's set. In other words, it's not a nostalgic look at a different time or place from our own perspective. This raises the question of home and exile, not only for the characters within it but for Pawlikowski himself, who has now made two Polish films in a row, having lived and worked in the West for decades.

The film he made before Ida was Woman in the Fifth, which was set in Paris and starred Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott-Thomas. Joanna Kulig, who plays Zula in COLD WAR, played a waitress in it. 'It was a strange monster,' Pawlikowski reflects now. 'It had no cultural identity: a French film, American, British, French actors, a Polish director. Although it came from a book, I ignored the book's plot and put a lot of my confused self into it. So it became something of a compass-less journey into the unknown. I have a lot of affection for that film, it reflects where I was at the time, but I have to admit it was a confusing hybrid, neither realist nor a thriller or a horror film. It left audiences baffled.

'That experience,' he continues, 'made me crave some firm ground. Which I found with Ida and now with COLD WAR, both of which I built up exactly the way I wanted; from my own stories, set in my own country, about things I knew about and felt.'

He moved back to Warsaw in 2013 in order to make Ida, and although he still didn't know if the move would be permanent, he says he 'totally reconnected with Poland'. When preparing the film, he was staying in a friend's apartment near where he grew up and found it incredibly comforting. He thought: 'I'm in the right place. I'm making the right film.' Some of the shots in Ida were inspired by his own family albums.

Broadly, he began circling autobiographical thoughts - which he had done in different ways with his earlier films, Last Resort and My Summer of Love. But in this case, he found he wasn't finished with Poland. 'I can't be precise,' he says, 'but it might have something to do with people reaching a certain age and looking back more and more. But also, feeling a certain calm. I don't need to prove anything.'


At one point, Wiktor says to Zula: ''Love's love and that's that.'' COLD WAR runs on a romantic engine so strong that it brooks no alternative. But not everyone will believe in a love as consistent as that. What did Pawlikowski want to show by it?

The question of how much it's dictated by politics and circumstance, how much by basic incompatibility, is one he wants to leave open. 'That's why it's slippery,' he says. 'In the end, the big question is: ''Is there a possibility of love that lasts? Can it transcend life, history, this world? I think the ending gives their love a transcendence of sorts.'

Is the ending inevitable?

'I have no idea,' Pawlikowski says. 'I think so.'

Cold War Movie Details 🎥

Directed by

Pawel Pawlikowski

Writing Credits

Pawel Pawlikowski, Janusz Glowacki and Piotr Borkowski (Screenplay)

Pawel Pawlikowski (Story)


Joanna Kulig

Tomasz Kot

Borys Szyc

Agata Kulesza

Adam Woronowicz

Adam Ferency

Adam Szyszkowski

Cédric Kahn

Jeanne Balibar

Cinematography by

Lukas Zal

Category: EFA, European Film Award Winner

Genres: Drama, Music, Romance, War

Countries: Poland, France, United Kingdom

Cold War Official Trailer

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