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The title this director gave his parents' story? 'Cold War'

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Cold War
Pawel Pawlikowski's "Cold War" follows a passionate love affair between two young people living in Poland just after World War II. While they constantly fight, and split up, they cannot shake the love they have for each other.
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

A film that's a likely contender for best foreign language Oscar opens in Minneapolis this weekend.

"Cold War" is inspired by the tempestuous decades-long love affair of two people the film's director knew all too well. Wictor and Zula, young Polish musicians, meet just after World War II. He plays piano; she sings. At least at first, they make beautiful music together.

Writer and director Pawel Pawlikowski based Zula and Wiktor on his own parents in Poland. They met, married, had him, divorced, married other people, moved to other countries, divorced their new spouses and then remarried each other, before eventually divorcing again.

He lived in the shadow of their love. Being their son was far from easy, but when they died in the late '80s, he realized how much he missed them. So he wrote "Cold War," a fictionalized version of their 40-year love affair.

"I just kind of slightly forgot it was them literally and created a couple that has its own autonomous logic, but very much in the spirit of the original," he said.

In "Cold War," shot entirely in a moody black and white, Zula and Wiktor meet at auditions for a folk ensemble. It's sponsored by the government, and holds out the possibility of a comfortable life, if not fame, in war-ravaged Poland. He is the music director, and she claims to be steeped in traditional folk music.

"And cons her way into the folk ensemble under false pretenses," he said. "She is not from the country. The song she comes with is a Stalinist music, nothing to do with folk music."

In fact, there are rumors she has done prison time for stabbing her father, rumors she does not deny. Wiktor, of course, falls for her. He cannot escape her spell, even after she admits she's been informing on him once a week to a Communist Party official. He stamps off in one direction, while she heads in the other, calling him names, before jumping in a river.

Cold War
Wictor (Tomasz Kot) is stunned when Zula (Joanna Kulig) casually reveals she has been informing on him every week to the Communist Party official assigned to the folk ensemble where they both work. She says she is doing it to protect them both, but it only increases his feelings of being stifled in post-war Poland.
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

He turns in concern, but Zula has already moved on, floating on her back and singing.

"The basic qualities are pretty close to my mother's," Pawlikowski said.

Zula becomes one of the ensemble's stars. She likes life in the limelight, even as the government begins using the choir for political ends. Meanwhile, Wiktor is increasingly unhappy.

"He's in a different situation," Pawlikowski said. "He's educated, middle class. He studied in Paris before the war. He suffocates from lack of freedom. He'd rather play other music."

Cold War
Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig as Wictor and Zula in Pawel Pawlikowski's "Cold War." Pawlikowski who wrote and directed the film said it's a fictionalized account of his parents tempestuous relationship.
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

When they go on tour he finds a way to defect, and tries to take Zula with him. It doesn't work out, and they begin a turbulent life of love at a distance, roiled in the politics of postwar Europe.

"I don't like films that are about history — you know, where history is being explained or illustrated," he said. "But I like things to take place in a historical context."

In fact, one of the delights of "Cold War" is Pawlikowski's ability to hint at the myriad stories going on around the couple, while maintaining his focus on the lovers. And he does it quickly. "Cold War" covers 15 years in just 85 minutes. He said it's the result of his obsession with condensing his narrative.

"Suggesting as much as possible, while telling, or spelling out, as little as possible," he said. "For me, that's what art should aspire to anyway."

Pawlikowski said he's been pleased at how well the film has done in Poland, getting good box office for, as he puts it, "a black and white, obliquely told film with gaps in the narrative."  

Now "Cold War" is one of nine movies on the short list for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. The competition is tough, and includes "Shoplifters" from Japan, "Capernaum" from Lebanon and "Roma" from Mexico.