The heat of a forbidden love affair runs up against the chill that settled in behind “The Iron Curtain” in “Cold War,” the latest black and white “communist era” drama from the Polish writer-director, Pawel Pawlikowski (“Ida”).
The Oscar nominated result is lovely, wintry and austere tale of romantic longing set against a last-gasp-of-jazz background, an ill-starred romance that feels much longer than its announced 89 minute run time.
The passion between Wiktor (Tomasz Kot, a brooding hunk), a pianist/composer/arranger in post-war Poland, and his Bardot-ish former student Zula (Joanna Kulig, giving us beauty without warmth) seems ill-fated to the point of artifice. But their persistence in the face of personal trials and political obstacles straight out of “1984” gives the romance weight, and the stark contrasts of its black and white cinematography suggest depth out of proportion to the film’s “Doctor Zhivago Lite” story and characters.
Yes, it’s up for the Best Foreign Language Film and Best Director Oscars. I would handicap it as the third best film in a five-contender category.
“Cold War” opens in 1949 Poland, when the State sends a team — a musician, Wiktor, a dance teacher (Agata Kulesza of “Ida”) and a would-be Commisar-driver, Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) — on the road, traveling folklorists looking for “Poland’s Got Talent” folk singers and dancers from the provinces of the war-torn/Russian servant state.
“No more will the talents of The People go to waste!” Kaczmarek thunders. No, the villages are filled with singers of the old songs, dancers in the Old Tradition.
As they audition prospects for their Mazurek (Mazurka) School, Wiktor is struck by the young blonde Zula (Kulig) who angles her way into consideration. His more skeptical colleague (Kulesza) is overruled. Even though Zula has a prison record. She stabbed someone.
Her father “mistook me for my mother,” she explains (in Polish, with English subtitles). “I used a knife to show him the difference.”
Zula begins her mercurial career with the Mazurek troupe, and she begins her forbidden affair with Wiktor. She is “the woman of my life,” he says at several points.” She vows to “be with you until the end of the world!”
But she’s ratting him out to the commissar, who is sweet on her. She’s much younger, impulsive, unschooled. It’s just that Wiktor is intoxicated by her.
Years pass, with various appease-the-Russians alterations to their program (“The Internationale” and more Stalinesque tunes join their repertoire), and they tour Eastern Europe before the Berlin Wall goes up. Wiktor uses the occasion of a performance in Berlin to plan their escape.
But circumstances and a under-considered doubt prevent Zula from taking the plunge. As she becomes a star of the company and Wiktor starts a new life playing jazz, composing for films and scoring arrangements in Paris, they find ways to cross paths, mostly at his inception, often with frustrating results.
Finally pairing them up in Paris after assorted run-ins with The State and confessions of having moved on (she marries, he takes up with a French poetess) doesn’t make the path of true love any smoother.
The leads are showcased engagingly, the locations — even ruined a bombed out Polish church, but including Paris, Yugoslavia and Occupied Berlin — rendered in romantic tones. But there’s not enough connection between those leads to generate the level of heat aimed for here.
The suggestion of a love triangle — a coupling of convenience with Kaczmarek with its “Zhivago” like love triangle, is frankly half-assed onto the screen.
But it’s a perfectly watchable 90 minutes that feels longer. Especially if, like me, you love jazz and scenes of the musical medium at its peak, with Zula dancing to “Rock Around the Clock” to signify the doom hanging over their art (she becomes a torch singer), their love and the world they fell in love in.
MPAA Rating: R, for some sexual content, nudity and language
Cast: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc
Credits: Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, script by Pawel Pawlikowski, Janusz Glowacki and Piotr Borkowski. An Amazon Studios release.