PARIS—Cold War, the latest feature by the Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, is a stormy love story filmed in black and white and set between Poland and Paris during the early 1950s. It is also a film about a time when borders defined lives. Watching it now, at an unsettling time when borders seem to be making a comeback in Europe—with Brexit, namely—confirmed my sense that Pawlikowski is one of the subtlest, most historically astute directors on, and of, the continent today. His great themes are nationalism, exile, and with Cold War, love.
Pawlikowski is best known for the Academy Award–winning Ida (2014), which was set in the 1960s and also filmed in black and white. That film told the story of an orphaned Polish novice who, on the eve of taking her vows to become a nun, discovers she’s Jewish and goes on a road trip in search of her parents’ graves. Ida stirred up a huge amount of controversy in Poland, whose nationalist government is preternaturally sensitive to the question of Polish complicity in the Holocaust.
Cold War, which opens on December 21, is something of a response to that controversy in that it explores how culture is used and manipulated for nationalistic ends. It begins with a troupe of impresarios traveling the muddy Polish countryside auditioning singers for a state-run folk ensemble. There, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a musician and conductor, falls hard for Zula (Joanna Kulig), an impetuous and ambitious singer. The work is loosely based on the story of Pawlikowski’s own parents—his ballet-dancer mother and doctor father who married, unmarried, and remarried each other over many years and in several countries, and who died in 1989, just before the Cold War ended.