Ironically enough, “Cold War” tells the story of a passionate romance, one that cools gorgeously and sadly toward its title. Beginning in post-World War II Poland and crisscrossing the Iron Curtain over several decades and many hairpin curves of the heart, the movie floats the heresy that all love is political, defined against the structures of freedom or fear under which we live. Directed and co-written by Pawel Pawlikowski (the Oscar-winning “Ida”), it’s partly a eulogy for the filmmaker’s parents but mostly a great love story that seems to flourish in repression and falter when liberated.
Shot in lucid, all-seeing black and white by Lukasz Zal — as with this season’s “Roma,” the film is a reminder of the beauties of the form and should be seen on a big screen if possible — “Cold War” is about the gray areas of the human heart. It’s 1949 when Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig) meet: He is a talented pianist and conductor pressed into service as a musicologist by the new Communist government, and she is a teenage singer auditioning for a state-sponsored folklore troupe. Already she seems more worldly yet less confident than he.
The film traces the arc of a relationship that bends to both the pressures of totalitarianism and the hedonism of the West. As they’re laying blissfully in a Polish field, Zula casually informs Wiktor she’s informing on him to the troupe’s government overseer, a bureaucratic nonentity named Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc). How can Wiktor be upset? Isn’t Zula worth a little free-floating paranoia.
Similarly, after Wiktor defects, first to West Berlin and then to Paris, and Zula belatedly joins him, she’s emotionally undone by the city’s breezy, cool-jazz amoralities. Suddenly her lover appears suspect: What does a man stand for if he has nothing to stand against?
“Cold War” is a ravishment, a cinematic feast for the senses, and it packs an epic inner landscape into a dense 88 minutes. The boxlike framing of the image — the film was shot in the classic “Academy ratio” — nods to movies of the era while tightening the vise on the couple. Kulig’s performance literally lights up the screen, her blond hair a flame on a candle willing itself to stay lit.
The character is a troubled free spirit in a long movie lineage; would Zula even exist without forebears like Jeanne Moreau in “Jules and Jim” (1962) or Harriet Andersson in “Summer With Monika” (1953)? Kot’s Wiktor, artistic, passive-aggressive, and saturnine, is a familiar figure, too, to anyone who’s seen enough Jean-Luc Godard films. It doesn’t really matter, since Pawlikowski tells his story with a sorrow fierce enough to reinvent the wheel. There are sequences here that feel both freshly minted and eternal, most notably a Paris nightclub scene in which a disconsolate and drunken Zula becomes a whirling dervish to the strains of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.”
That song represents the ultimate liberating force in the calculus of “Cold War,” and the film is especially alive to the ways music can be used both to free the human spirit and imprison it. Under Kaczmarek’s watchful ruling-party eye, the folklore troupe slips from authentic re-creations of Polish song and dance to glorifications of Joseph Stalin. One song, “Dwa szerduska (Two Hearts),” is first heard in a village girl’s rendition, then gets picked up by Zula for the stage show, and is ultimately translated into a breathy French lounge-jazz version, losing blood with every step.
If you want to go digging for metaphors, there’s one right there for the taking: The vanishing Polish soul embodied in two lovelorn pawns batted back and forth between Russia and the West. But “Cold War” suffices as a simple filmic jewel of a story, about a couple swimming hard against the currents of history and governments until they only have each other to cling to.
★ ★ ★ ★
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. Written by Pawlikowski, Janusz Glowacki, Piotr Borkowski. Starring Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot. At Kendall Square. 88 minutes. R (some sexual content, nudity, language). In Polish and French, with subtitles.