Cold War: When Music Becomes a Character

Image Courtesy of Opus Film

Image Courtesy of Opus Film

By Elizabeth Vogt

Oscar season has come and gone, but I’m still attempting to see a few more of the nominated films before they leave theaters. This year I was especially intrigued by the movies in the Best Foreign Language Film category, so I decided to go see Poland’s official submission to the category, Cold War, written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. The film also scored Pawlikowski nominations for Best Director and Best Cinematography at this year’s Academy Awards, and won him Best Director at Cannes. I’m a sucker for a great trailer, and the first glimpses of the lush, black-and-white shots accompanied by smoky jazz in this one had me hooked on the film’s aesthetic in just seconds. And though movies don’t always live up to their previews, Cold War certainly did.

In short, this film was captivatingly beautiful. Each moment of Cold War’s brief run-time (just about 85 minutes) was written and shot with great sensitivity to its characters, and I quickly found myself enamored by the love story between Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig), which unfolds over the course of nearly two decades and is loosely inspired by the lives of Pawlikowski’s parents. If you’re a fan of stunning cinematography, you’ll be enthralled by the gorgeous string of black-and-white vignettes that make up the movie, shot in the Academy ratio (a 1.37:1 frame shape that was the standard from the 1930s to the 1950s and creates a more boxy look than the modern widescreen ratio of 2.35:1). Kot and Kulig’s performances are moving as the characters and their relationship evolve against the backdrop of post-World War II and Cold War-era Europe.

However, I believe the film’s greatest triumph is its soundtrack. In Cold War, music doesn’t just accompany the action—it tells the story. Whether it’s a Chopin piece chock-full of furious arpeggios, a political anthem accompanied by the dancers in Wiktor’s musical troupe, or an Ella Fitzgerald song played in a Paris jazz club, each piece of music propels the story forward, signalling something unique about the time and place of each moment. Perhaps most memorable and integral to the story of Cold War is the Polish folk song Dwa serduszka (“Two Hearts”), which takes on new forms throughout the film, tracking both changes in Europe’s cultural landscape and in Wiktor and Zula’s turbulent relationship. Wiktor first hears the song from a young girl during his travels through rural Poland and records it on a small tape recorder. Later, as the director of the musical troupe that Zula is a performer in, Wiktor arranges the song into a dramatic and haunting choral piece, though he eventually abandons the troupe after receiving pressure from the government to incorporate political messages into the show. When the two lovers reunite in Paris after years apart, Wiktor transforms Dwa serduszka once more into a smoldering jazz tune for Zula to sing that is suitable for French clubs. The couple discusses the song throughout the film, most notably when Wiktor hires a poet to translate it from the original Polish to French, so that they can reach more audiences and create a record, but Zula is angered that the particular tone of the original song is lost in translation. The song’s lyrics capture the joy and pain of the characters’ relationship as they navigate situations where their love can barely survive.

Cold War treats music as an independent character, a living thing that can convey story, emotion and change. It is this intentionality, which is similarly echoed in recent films If Beale Street Could Talk* (Barry Jenkins) and Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino), that enriches the love story in a subtle yet transformative way. Music plays some role in the characters’ daily lives in both diegetic and non-diegetic contexts and compells viewers to listen closely. Cold War is certainly one of these stories, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll fall in love with it, too.

*P.S. Trailer junkies: Check out this one for If Beale Street Could Talk. If that cinematic version of Killing Me Softly doesn’t make you cry, I don’t know what will.

Steven Norwalk