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Polish yoke

by David Lamble

Polish yoke

Best-known in America for the 2004 Yorkshire teen girls romance "My Summer of Love," Cannes award-winning director Pawel Pawlikowski recalls the European Communist-era relationship of his composer dad and singer mom in "Cold War." It's a fractured fairy tale filmed in chilly-to-the-bone B&W and the old-fashioned square-screen aspect ratio.

Each chapter opens with a date-and-place stamp traversing a tumultuous slice of history from 1945-59. "Cold War" focuses on a hetero love affair between an ambitious blonde singer and her emotional punching-bag of a composer lover, set against the backdrop of postwar Poland, suffering under the cruel, freedom-crushing style of Stalinist bureaucrats.

We meet our tortured hero Victor (Tomasz Kot) in 1949 during a harsh Polish winter. His job is to wander through the bleak frozen tundra of Communist Poland with fellow musicologist Irena (Agata Kulesza), recording rural folk music where and whenever they find it. Victor and Irena stumble upon a special academy established to harvest teenage talent to reboot the traditional folk music of rural Poland, run by ruthless party bureaucrat Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc). Victor's eye falls on a young blonde student singer, Zula (Joann Kulig). Persistent rumors have it that she murdered her father. "He mistook me for my mother, and I used a knife to show him the difference."

Victor is smitten, and despite the likelihood that Zula might be betraying him to the secret police, a passionate affair begins. Later, feeling flummoxed by her demands and behavior, Viktor bitterly challenges her to "find another normal guy who can support you." Zula retorts, "Such man is not born yet."

It's easy to forget that "Cold War" is that odd hybrid, the "musical drama," a throwback to pre-war days when Hollywood was giddy with song and dance. The film's musical numbers resonate with socialist realist themes, demonstrating the determination of the era's communist rulers to bend every human element in their sprawling empire to a deadly dull propaganda purpose. It's to the film's credit that, as the sinisterly charming but scary Kaczmarek, Borys Szyc offers an Oscar-worthy turn as an ideology-driven devil.

At a moment when America's long-treasured history of welcoming immigrants under Liberty's torch is under siege, it's useful to recall the daily terror of societies where, as "Casablanca" screenwriters wrote in 1942, "the Devil has the people by the throat." (Opens Friday.)

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