Two of the best movies of the last 20 years have come out of a zone of experience that for half a century was hidden from most Americans: the landscape of Eastern Europe between World War II and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The more famous is The Lives of Others, a portrait of the East German police state in its twilight years, the work of the wonderfully named German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. The other, on a smaller canvas, is the black-and-white film Ida, by the Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, which follows a young soon-to-be-nun in early-1960s Poland who goes searching for the truth about her parents, dead in World War II.
Now, by coincidence, both Pawlikowski and Donnersmarck have new movies out, both of which were nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, and both of which return to Eastern Europe’s iron-curtained past. About Donnersmarck’s new effort, Never Look Away, I will write more in a future essay; for now, suffice it to say that the two films make a fascinating study in cinematic contrasts, with Donnersmarck’s evocation of the past lush and painterly (befitting his artist subject), while Pawlikowski prefers to work not just in black and white but in a squared-off, deliberately narrowed frame.
This was his trick in Ida, too, and as in that movie the result in Cold War is something that feels, at times, like found footage, an antique film preserved from the era in which its tale took place. This also distinguishes Pawlikowski’s approach from Alfonso Cuarón’s use of black and white in the much-admired Roma: Cuarón’s movie was set in the 1970s, an era that we remember in full color, and so its palette felt more artificial — like a modern epic drained of its natural rainbow hues rather than something recovered from a different period in history.
The specific history Pawlikowski is recovering is the story of his parents, whose four decades of off-again, on-again entanglement he has distilled into the 20-year odyssey of Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot). She is a lush singer-dancer, he is an angular composer-conductor, and they first meet when she charms and flirts her way into the folk ensemble he is assembling, based on rural music that he and his partner Irena (Agata Kulesza) have been recording while driving through the Polish countryside just after World War II.
In their recording work they are accompanied by a Communist Party apparatchik, Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), whom we first observe emptying his bladder near a ruined, snowbound church and whose task is to convert folk art into ideological propaganda — Polish folk songs for Father Stalin. This conversion eventually disillusions Irena, and she drops out of the story; Wiktor remains reluctantly on the job, while Zula is politically accommodating enough to inform on him even as she becomes, passionately, his lover.
This establishes the pattern of the movie: In a sequence of set pieces, often with years between them, we watch Wiktor try to escape the Communist world while pulling Zula along with him, only to have her — for reasons of psychology rather than ideology, it would seem — constantly pull him back eastward, back to Poland and its tyrannies. The story leaps from Warsaw to Berlin to Paris and eventually back again, with a brief interlude in Yugoslavia, and it is romantic in the Romeo and Juliet sense, by which I mean that the lovers constantly behave like idiotic teenagers and careen toward an ending at once star-crossed and somewhat overwrought.
That ending is earned insofar as it fits with the movie’s primary theme — the shadow that the political, especially the totalitarian political, casts over merely personal attempts to conquer all with love — while also establishing, as a counterpoint, that personal flaws inevitably shape how people react to political misfortune, and how it’s hard to separate the two in watching a particular tragedy unfold. “Their whole lives were overshadowed” by the Cold War, Pawlikowski said of his parents to an interviewer, but he added that “their character problems” overshadowed everything as well. “So you don’t know where one ends and the other starts” — in the film, as in their life.
But it wounded my appreciation of the film to read that the real parents’ story did not end abruptly in the early 1960s but continued on for two more decades, when — again per Pawlikowski — “they ended up living together in Munich, too tired to fight, and very ill, . . . just kind of like a doddering old couple, but totally in love with each other, and holding hands.”
That more touching and realistic denouement seems like it would have made for better art than the more tragic and sudden way the movie version ends. Cold War is a rich and fascinating film, but in its conclusion I wish the son had been less melodramatically inventive and had instead honored his parents with the truth.