Monday, December 17, 2018
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski and starring Joanna Kulig as Zula and Tomasz Kot as Victor.
SONGS OF THE EARTH?
COLD WAR is a story of two lovers who meet, separate, reunite, stray apart again... over fifteen years, from 1949 to 1964... and then finally march steadily toward the fate that has always awaited them. It’s a great film.
Warsaw, 1949. Zula is a fresh-faced young Polish girl who auditions for the famed Mazurek Ensemble of singers and dancers. Like them, she is young, relatively untutored, from farm and the country. They come from the earth, they perform music of the earth, they bring their quirky, plaintive folk songs to audiences across Poland. But it’s not quite as simply stated as that: Zula auditions a song she calls “Two Hearts.” Is it a Polish folk song? Not really: She heard it in a movie soundtrack. And that’s not the first musical irony of many to come. Attracted to her is Victor Tomasz, the conductor of the ensemble. On his off hours he is performing--not a Polish folks song... no—he’s belting out a more sophisticated Polish tune, Chopin’s “Fantasy Impromptu.”
Are you getting the sense these two performers are slightly out of kilter with the program?
Soon, Zula and Victor fall in love. They and their ensemble quickly come under the Communist agenda promoting Joseph Stalin’s so-called People’s Music. And yes, now dressed in beautifully tailored peasant costumes, here they are, on stage in a crowded opera house, performing a gruesome but festive “Stalin Cantata” in front of a huge curtain bearing Uncle Joe’s fiercely-mustached face. Music of the earth is ground down under the dictator’s heel. The audience dutifully applauds. Touring takes the Mazurek Ensemble to Berlin and East Germany. Yugoslavia.
The lovers split when Victor escapes to Paris. He performs in a piano bar. Years pass. Now she’s also in Paris but married with a son. She’s gaining fame as a cabaret singer. (I might add that more and more she looks like Monica Vitti, which is fine with me!) Listen closely, and you’ll hear underneath the sultry smoke and slow, slightly dissonant harmonies that same song she same years ago, “Two Hearts.”
Regarded as a political dissident, Victor is dragged out of Paris by the Polish police. A jail cell waits for him.
And so it goes. More years pass. Crossing borders. She returns to Poland and performs a bongo-band version of “Two Hearts.” He follows. They try to reunite, but it hasn’t worked before, but maybe, just maybe, it’s going to work now?
COLD WAR is a history of music as much as of the political fortunes of two lovers. Of, I should say, what happens to music... as it springs from the rough, frayed hearts of the peasants, slumps to political agendas, transmutes into the discords of cabaret and blues, and erupts to Zula’s frenzied dance to “Rock Around the Clock.”
COLD WAR has a measured, rather stolid pacing, moving along in discrete chunks of story fragments. It frequently leaves gaps that allow us to fill in the story. Was it Miles Davis who once said, “It’s not the notes you play, but the notes you don’t play? COLD WAR is like that.
It’ll be a miracle if this Polish-French-British finds a home in local theaters. Check Amazon. But know that elsewhere, it’s garnered a fair share of international awards.