The Stories Behind the Songs in Cold War

Photo: Lukasz Bak/Amazon Studios

Cold War, co-written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, tells the bittersweet story of two star-crossed lovers. Zula (Joanna Kulig), a beautiful and volatile blonde who may have been imprisoned for stabbing her father (“He mistook me for my mother so I used a knife to show him the difference”), cons her way into auditions for the state-sponsored Mazurek folk-song-and-dance group. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is the group’s musical director, a reserved, classically trained pianist who can’t help but fall for the charismatic singer. Beginning in postwar Poland, their tempestuous coupling and uncoupling plays out over 15 years, in a variety of countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain. After Zula bails on their planned defection, Wiktor reinvents himself as a jazz pianist in 1950s Paris, and the two reunite intermittently as Zula enjoys the perks of stardom in communist Poland.

But the film is also an ode to music itself. Woven throughout Pawlikowski’s film is an eclectic mix of songs that the director personally selected to comment on (or undermine) moments in the duo’s often discordant relationship. “I always like using music dramatically as a character in the film,” Pawlikowski says about the story, which was inspired by his parents and won him the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Pawlikowski used the same device in his previous film, Ida, the 2017 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film, but this time, he took it a step further to tell the story of a couple with little in common “more gracefully.” The Mazurek folk ensemble — which is based on Poland’s real Mazowsze musical troupe founded in 1948 — allowed him to bring together two people who would otherwise never meet; underscoring their bittersweet story are Polish folk ballads, propaganda paeans, bebop, blues, rock, and kitschy Polish pop. “Music became the holy spirit of the whole story,” says Pawlikowski, who gave Vulture some additional details about the gorgeous songs.

Faith in Polish Folk
The director drew some divine inspiration from three traditional Mazowsze songs — “Dwa serduszka” (“Two Hearts”), “Oberek opoczyński,” and “Dolina” — played in different permutations throughout the film, signaling where the couple finds themselves at that moment, both geographically and politically. Pawlikowski, himself a pianist, didn’t choose the songs for their lyrics — he says most Polish folk is about separation and unhappy love — but rather, for their musical possibilities. “They’re beautiful and kind of haunting, but also pliable,” he says.

The melodies are first heard at the beginning of the film, when Wiktor and his colleague Irina (Agata Kulesza) and apparatchik Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) are sourcing songs in the war-torn countryside. First sung by a peasant girl, “Dwa serduszka,” the movie’s unofficial theme song, gets four adaptations: as a Mazurek production number in Poland with Zula singing in front; as part of a wild bebop piano improvisation by Wiktor in a Parisian club (more about that later); as a torch song sung by Zula in the same club; and as a French chanson (retitled “Deux Coeurs”) on Zula’s album.

The oberek (folk-dance tune), initially played on the accordion by a peasant, becomes a Mazurek dance tune in Poland; later, it’s a riff in Wiktor’s piano improvisation. “Dolina,” heard as Wiktor transcribes a recording, eventually becomes the torch song “Loin de Toi” (“Far From You”), the title song of Zula’s French album.

Improvising Instrumental Moments
To create the jazz versions of the folk songs, Pawlikowski turned to Polish pianist and arranger Marcin Masecki — who also coached Kot on keyboards, and whose hands doubled for the actor’s, most notably in a scene where Wiktor plays Chopin’s “Fantaisie-Impromptu.” Masecki’s improvisational skills came in handy for a key rehearsal scene in which Wiktor plays snippets of George Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy,” and Zula demonstrates her vocal chops. With only the direction from Pawlikowski to transform routine vocal exercises into the beginning of a romance, the scene “became the moment we see Wiktor start to fall in love with her through music,” Masecki says. “They see each other,” adds Pawlikowski. “He sees what her musical imagination gives her.” (Pawlikowski can’t remember who came up with the song, but Masecki was deferential and gave the director credit for everything.)

Masecki was also called on to create the impassioned piano improvisation Wiktor plays in the Parisian club after Zula leaves him. In the recording studio, Pawlikowski asked him to compose something that included “Dwa serduszka,” the oberek, and “The Internationale” — the French socialist anthem (also sung by Mazurek in Poland). Once he did so, the musician had to quickly write charts so the fingering would match the audio when the scene was shot.

Subtle Political Commentary
While Pawlikowski used the anthemic Stalin cantata to show how Mazurek became a government propaganda tool in 1951 — breaking Wiktor, and leading to his defection — some of the director’s song statements are subtler. A folk tune Wiktor, Irina, and Kaczmarek listen to early on is a Lemko melody. It enchants Kaczmarek — until he learns its origins. (The Slavic group was ethnically cleansed from Poland.)

After Zula comes to the Mazurek audition unprepared and duets with a peasant girl, Wiktor asks her to sing something with meaning to her. Her choice from the 1934 Soviet movie musical Jolly Fellows doesn’t impress the anti-Soviet pianist, but it makes him more interested in her.

Later, when Wiktor travels to Yugoslavia to see his lost love, Mazurek performs a Montenegrin song that Kaczmarek thinks will please locals. But Pawlikowski says singing a Serbian song in the Croatian city of Split would have been anathema to his hosts.

An Eclectic Mix
About the diverse catalogue of vintage blues, jazz, and rock and roll — Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald — heard in the latter part of the film, Pawlikowski says his choices were intuitive. But Fitzgerald’s “I’ve Got a Crush on You, Sweetie Pie” and the last chords of her “Blue Moon,” heard at a Parisian boîte ahead of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” were sentimental picks. “I love Ella, and she also happened to be my father’s favorite singer. So there was some echo of him.” The Haley song, which Zula wildly dances to, became the perfect way to cut through a melancholy moment after she gets drunk at a party. “It plants a wedge between them because she reacts to the song, and Wiktor doesn’t,” he says.

As for Zula’s memorable performance of “Baio Bongo,” which the drunk and blowsy singer performs replete with Polish mariachis in 1964 Warsaw, Pawlikowski was inspired by the original by Natasza Zylska from his childhood. “I needed a really cheesy number that would show how low she sank after returning to Poland,” he says.

Glenn Gould’s Bach Goldberg Variations: Aria became the coda over the credits only after an original composition by Masecki turned out to be too sad for the director. On the other hand, the Bach offers a feeling of transcendence and “reconciliation with life — even if it’s afterlife,” he says.

The Stories Behind the Songs in Cold War