“I knocked, I cried, she wouldn’t open up.” That is Wiktor’s torment. These lyrics begin Pawel Pawlikowski’s film Cold War and foretell the fate of Wiktor and Zula’s love. A love that never had a chance. Theirs is a war originating in Zula’s history. A history that spawned deep shame and distrust of love. Just when Wiktor thinks Zula’s let him in, she turns cold and runs away; or betrays him. Yet, because she too cannot stay away, their cycle of separations and reunions plays out over many years as, finally, Zula “puts the knife” into Wiktor’s heart. We watch Wiktor’s despair and desperation mount. Until Cold War’s two lovers have no choice but to make a deadly final marital pact.
Zula and Wiktor’s love is a tragedy in the making, doomed by forces in Zula that tear them apart. As Cold War begins, a young girl sings: “Crying all night long. Dark eyes, you cry because you can’t be together.” Wiktor’s eyes are dark. Zula’s blue. An image of Eyes staring out from a stone wall comes onto the screen.
We are in an old abandoned Church; a cave-like interior. In the Church’s stone wall are Eyes peering out, seemingly carved into the stone – but as if someone is trapped there. Buried. These are eyes that might tell the past. Eyes that witness how much a history of abuse, anger, fear, and hurt follows Zula into love and wreaks its havoc.
How Zula’s Past Haunts Her
It’s Poland, 1949, and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig) are soon to meet. Zula’s past, revealed as soon as Zula auditions for Wiktor’s performance troop, will keep them apart. And, Wiktor’s brown eyes will cry.
Young Zula auditions for Wiktor and Irena’s (Agata Kulesza) folk performance troop. Wiktor is immediately taken with Zula’s spirit. Particularly when she sings: “There’s no sleep when you’re in love … Heart …it’s good to know you can love like this.” When Wiktor asks Zula what the song’s about, she answers: “Heart … love, you know.”
Wiktor falls fast. Yet, Irena warns him as they watch Zula dance: “You see your girl, she’s up to something …. a bit of a con … apparently, she killed her father and has a suspended sentence. Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) (the troop’s manager) checked her out.” He’s a Communist sympathizer, Wiktor, musical director, is not.
This leads to trouble for Wiktor and Zula after Kaczmarek insists the troop sing and dance for the Comrades against a Stalin backdrop. Before this happens, Wiktor plays the piano as he takes Zula through her paces, helping her sing arpeggios. He wants to know about her past.
“What’s the story with the father?” “Whose?” “Yours. What did you serve time for?” “He mistook me for my mother so I used the knife to show him the difference…he didn’t die, don’t worry.”
Zula’s father sexually abused her and sexual abuse does not bode well for trust in men or love. In fact, if she’s turned upon, Zula knows quite well how to thrust the knife in. In emotional, not physical ways. We see what looms between them. Already, she distrusts Wiktor: “Are you interested in me because of my talent? Or in general?”
Zula Must Be In Control
Zula wants Wiktor’s interest, but she must be in control. They soon make love, and then problems begin. Men can betray her. Use her. Leave her helpless. Make her the “guilty one.” When a father abuses a daughter, he’s broken her trust. And such girls must be one step ahead of hurt. Hurt’s expected.
Sexual abuse breeds shame. Yet, at the beginning of Cold War, what we mostly see is how Zula controls her self-hate in rages at Wiktor. In the way, she’ll leave him first. How she’ll betray him before he betrays her. She was punished for her anger at her father. Now she misinterprets Wiktor’s actions. She questions love.
Zula and Wiktor are lying together in the grass. She loves him and in that love is the danger. She must protect herself: “I’ll be with you ’til the end of the world … but I have something to tell you. I’m ratting on you. I go to Kaczmarek every week to ‘confess’ but I never tell anything that could hurt you.” Yet, she does.
Kaczmarek wants to know if Wiktor listens to Radio Liberty (which broadcasts anti-Soviet messages). Wiktor, angry, walks away. She’s turned on him, but instead, she feels misunderstood, justified in her actions; the one betrayed: “I knew it. I’m a fucking idiot. What would you do? I’m on probation. They wouldn’t let me in otherwise …”
Here is the “sign” she constantly looks for – that confirms her conviction (before she falls in love) that love will fail her. How can Zula let herself love if she’s certain she will be hurt? That she’s a fool to think anyone can love her. Yes, Zula thinks, she’s “an idiot” to believe in love.
Zula’s Distrust & Shame
Zula must protect herself. And one method of self-protection is to think nothing of turning on love before love turns on her. As if she doesn’t care, even though she does. As Wiktor walks away, she screams: “Go fuck yourself, bourgeois wanker. Whatever! If I wanted to, I could fuck you up good and proper.” He stops.
Wiktor loves her. And, he’ll do anything for Zula’s love. We watch him throughout Cold War. He becomes more and more desperate as Zula makes loving her impossible. She will and must do anything to be the one on top. When you’ve been abused and suffered for it, power seems the only answer to distrust and shame.
And, when Wiktor wants to leave the now propaganda-infused performance troop in Poland and defect to Paris, he tells her to meet him after the performance where the Russian sector ends. He’ll wait there. She’s worried. “What am I going to do there? Who will I be?” “You’ll be with me … I don’t want to live without you.”
Wiktor isn’t afraid to love. Zula is. She’s afraid of being taken over by him – another after-effect of sexual abuse. She’s certain she’ll lose herself. She doesn’t show up. Wiktor waits in the dark for hours. Then picks up his suitcase and sadly leaves alone.
1954, two years later, Zula finds him in Paris. He asks her why she never came. “I felt it wouldn’t work. Not the actual escape. I wasn’t good enough. Not as good as you in general.” This is her shame. Shame is what she protects herself against with her jealous and hurtful ways. For Wiktor, though, “Love is love and that’s that.”
Confusing Wiktor For Her Father
Love isn’t so simple for an abused girl. Wiktor easily becomes her betraying controlling father. We see it when she comes back to Paris in 1957. She’s married an Italian (a “con” for a visa to come to find Wiktor), but “not legally” since they didn’t marry in church. He’s been waiting for her. Wiktor’s always waiting.
A song plays in the background: “Are you my baby? Maybe baby’s found somebody new. Or is my baby still my baby true?” Zula can have other men; Wiktor must be completely hers. Love is insecure.
He introduces her to Michel (Cédric Kahn), the theater man he works for to help get Zula singing gigs in Paris: “Michel likes me, but he’ll like you even more. Be nice to him. Just be yourself.” But, this insults the girl who never feels good enough. She tells Wiktor not to worry about Michel. “We get on like a house on fire.”
Wiktor’s waited for this “woman of his life” and goes back to her each time she hurts him. But, for Zula – no matter that he’s left Juliette (Jeanne Balibar), the well-known Poetess, as soon as Zula comes to Paris. To an insecure girl, filled with self-doubt, his love isn’t reassurance enough. Of course, he’s had, other lovers. So has she.
Yet Juliette is still a threat. So, when Wiktor helps her record an album, an album of Juliette’s poems, he becomes her molester/father. The controller. When angry and jealous, she under-sings the poem-songs, he asks her not to be so blank. “Ok, I’ll do it your way. You’ll get what you want.”
His way. What you want. Wiktor is her molester/father. Juliette her mother. He’s “making her do her mother’s work.” Revenge is now the name of her game.
Zula Puts The Knife In
“Why so sad?” Wiktor asks when the album is released. Her answer? Zula throws the album (his love) in the trash. She’ll show him. Wiktor will be the jealous one. When he asks again what’s wrong, she says: “Nothing, everything’s great. Michel is a real Master. He fucked me six times in one night.” She stabs him in the heart.
Wiktor grabs her as she further twists the knife: “Not like a Polish artist in exile.” He slaps her across the face. “Now we’re talking,” she says. Is she looking to be punished? Looking to prove he’s the abuser? Or, perhaps, she’ll put her own guilt into him.
When a girl’s been hurt and betrayed by a parent, no one is safe. She can’t trust love. And, she must use men to assure that they will not use her. Well, yes, Wiktor did reveal information about her past to Michel to “make her colorful.” This, he thinks, is what Paris wants. It’s also his hostility for all the times she’s left him hurt and helpless.
Yet, remember – Zula has plenty of “cons” up her sleeve. Although Wiktor apologized, she seeks out Juliette at the same party and jabs him back: “I met your lover, a bit on the old side. You two look good together.” Haughtily, she walks away, drowning her sorrows with a bottle of Vodka in the bathroom:
“Oh well, Zula,” she consoles herself, “what will be will be, you love him and that’s that.” But, love is too risky for Zula. Drunk, she dances, throwing herself at other men as Wiktor watches. This, followed by her taunting him with her affair with Michel, is to make Wiktor the fool. Not her. And, once she’s done this, Zula again disappears.
Wiktor’s Frenzied Desperation
When Wiktor can’t find Zula, he storms into Michel’s house: “What did you do to her?” Michel tells him she’s left for Poland. Gone. Leaving him stranded, his face is the picture of total devastation. Zula is the love of Wiktor’s life. And, he can’t live without her. No other woman will do. Wiktor must find her.
With a jazz band, he plays an angry frenzied piano piece lost in his own pain. Virtually beats his head against the telephone in a booth trying to call her. He goes to Kaczmarek for help returning to Poland: “As far as we’re concerned, you don’t exist.” He betrayed the Communist regime. Kaczmarek warns him not to go.
But, Wiktor will risk everything to find Zula. Or, could it be that Kaczmarek turns him in? We never really know. But, Wiktor does leave Paris for Poland. And ends up sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor in a prison camp on falsified charges. Really, for defecting Poland and living his anti-Communist beliefs.
But, what is Wiktor’s real charge? Being unable to live without Zula. Loving a woman who’s been too wounded by her history to fully love him back.
Together Only In Death
Zula visits Wiktor in prison. He looks defeated and demoralized. She strokes his face. Sits on his lap. Kisses him. He looks at her and asks, “What have we done?” She promises: “I’ll wait. I’ll get you out of here.”
By wielding her sexual charms, Zula marries Kaczmarek who has the political power Wiktor needs. Together, she and Kaczmarek have a blond little boy. But, she’s now waiting for Wiktor,. And, she drowns her guilt and her grief in booze.
When Wiktor finally walks into a bar where Zula sings, she runs off stage in a drunken stupor and throws herself into his arms. In full view of her husband and child, she loudly proclaims: “I love you with all my heart.”
Ignoring her little boy (as she’s tried to ignore the little girl in her that desperately needs love,) she begs Wiktor: “Get me out of here. I mean for good.” The havoc wreaked by their love – passed on to an innocent child.
Running away, Zula and Wiktor stand in the stone Church where Cold War began. We see the face in the wall. Eyes peering out, watching them. Creating an altar, Zula says: “Repeat after me.” With marital vows, they take each other as husband and wife.
Zula hands Wiktor his share of pills. Until Death Do Us Part. But, that’s not true. It’s only in death that Zula can allow herself to be with Wiktor. Only in death can she trust he’ll never leave her: “Now I’m yours forever.” Yes, they are eternal lovers. And Wiktor, too defeated by love and by life, cannot object.
They sit on a bench, holding hands, waiting to die. As Cold War ends, we might ironically say that Zula and Wiktor have a strange new beginning to their tragic love.