‘No, no, I won’t marry a master, I’ll marry someone of my ilk.’ These words, sung with mournful defiance early on in Cold War, declare the central problem of the relationship we see unfolding. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), pianist and government archivist of Polish music, and Zula (Joanna Kulig), an impulsive runaway, are not of the ‘same ilk’. He exoticizes her as a peasant angel; she dismisses him as an effete bourgeoise. His God is music; she’s a pious Catholic. He flits among the unctuous elite; she craves bodily communion. He wants to escape Poland; she can never really leave. And there is something very powerful (yet unsayable) between them: class, yes, but more than class, suffering.
‘Is this a God-given love or one from the devil?’ Wiktor travels through Poland recording this traditional, ‘peasant-style’ music. Most is about doomed or forbidden love, the faces that sing them wearied by the terrible war that’s just ended. The plaintive nostalgia is of a piece with all folk music, but the beauty of these humble songs will be a revelation to those unfamiliar with the language. Under the instruction of the new Communist government, Wiktor establishes a school to cultivate and promote this great reservoir of music. One of the girls who auditions is Zula, and so begins their romance, conducted in the initial period through shared glances in rehearsals.
During a meeting that signals the group’s transition from a repository of Polish culture to an arm of Stalin’s propaganda machine, a bureaucrat suggests they produce music about land reform and international peace. Wiktor’s colleague protests: country people don’t sing about agricultural policy or global politics. One of the cadre corrects them: they will sing about those things, with direction. In the next scene we see the choir, straighter and more uniform, singing a sycophantic number about the ‘leader of the proletariat’. Stalin’s moustache rises behind the stage, consuming the screen. Pawlikowski never uses historical exposition; here he shows the transition to state repression and, ten years later, he shows us the piecemeal liberalisations after Stalin’s death. The characters never express any political opinions, and their lives are, for the most part, exceptional, far removed from ordinary social life, yet Pawlikowski communicates some subtle facts about post-war Poland.
Pawlikowski puts generic interactions inside complex historical contexts, and then inside something much more mysterious: the contradictory flows of feelings between the two protagonists. ‘I’ll be with you until the end of the world,’ Zula says, her head resting on Wiktor’s lap. Then she admits to ‘ratting’ on him, sharing details about his beliefs and habits to a senior cadre. He storms off, and she jumps into a lake; her head pokes through the water as she floats along singing a folk ballad. In the next scene they are together, gazing at each other through the spitting embers of a campfire. There was reconciliation, but we don’t see it. It’s as if the song magnetised him to her. Or perhaps it was the landscape. Despite the minimalism of Pawlikowski greyscale box, he’s often shamelessly romantic, drawn, with whimsical fondness, towards scraps of beauty. Does he see a parallel between Polish music and the love between our heroes? They are both wild, pre-modern and primordial. There is, in the early stages, an honest attempt to elevate these goods on the part of the Communist regime. But ultimately the state is suspicious of them: Pawlikowski suggests that both love and music are hard to accommodate, or to understand, under Stalinism.
Zula and Wiktor plot an escape to Paris, but she jilts him. It’s a tense, bitter sequence. He waits on street corners, smoking. She stays inside, drinking. They later meet in Paris, and we learn that she didn’t think it would work: she wasn’t ‘good enough’. For a brief section we’re transported to a Before-style idyll of love among European landmarks. They take a boat down the Seine, and the lovers watch each other watching kissing couples on the banks. This is the third time they’ve met out of the blue, and this time they abandon themselves to each other. Things soon fall apart. Zula conforms just enough to survive, but aggression, desire and alienation spill over the edges.
Kulig’s performance, shimmying between self-possession and whimsy, is a riposte to the condescension towards Eastern Europe that Zula finds everywhere. And the complexity of what she wants is a riposte to the smoky, duplicitous women of film noir. When she first auditions, Wiktor thinks she’s a fraud and a chancer. In order to sell her to bohemia and win a record deal, he exaggerates her darkness and mystery. Zula is always battling against her partner's projections. When Wiktor's sent back to Paris after visiting her in Yugoslavia, a Polish agent scoffs, ‘Femme fatale, huh?’