I meet the two Polish stars of the year’s most beautiful love story, Cold War…

Among the great, enduring European love stories we must include Antony and Cleopatra, Tristan and Isolde, Abelard and Heloise, Romeo and Juliet, Lancelot and Guinevere, Paolo and Francesca, Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy. 

On the silver screen we’ve embraced Casablanca’s Rick and Ilsa, Brief Encounter’s Laura and Dr Alec, even Jules et Jim or the Before trilogy’s Jesse and Celine. 

But now the names of Wiktor and Zula must surely be added to the list.

They are the tortured, impassioned lovers of Cold War, the new film from Oscar-winning Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, a black and white masterpiece that achieved “instant classic” status the moment it premiered to an enraptured reception at Cannes last May and earned Pawlilkowski the Best Director prize.

Joanna Kulig in Cold War

Joanna Kulig

Critics also showered its unknown actors with praise and, perhaps inspired by the luminous monochrome cinematography and the post-War period setting, searched for comparisons from the cinematic past, labelling Poland’s Joanna Kulig “the new Jeanne Moreau.”

Pawlikowski was born in Poland but made his reputation in Britain, first as a documentarist, then with such spiky love stories as Last Resort (2000) and My Summer of Love, which discovered actress Emily Blunt in 2004.

Cold War is the story of a love affair over 20 years and many obstacles, the biggest of which being the Iron Curtain itself. Set just after the end of the Second World War, Wiktor is a respected musician tasked by the new Polish government with creating a concert of traditional Polish folk music. He tours the countryside auditioning dancers and singers from farms and mountains and is instantly struck by a determined young peasant girl called Zula.

As the troupe prepares to perform in Warsaw as an inspiration for the new Poland, Wiktor and Zula fall in love but when the group embark on a tour of other communist cities to show off Polish culture, the more worldly Wiktor defects and Zula fails to join him.

A rare and cherishable film ensues that’s about love and exile, music and success, the impossibility of perfection in art, in life and in love. It’s a film that can have you floating on air then break your heart and I’d  be shocked (and outraged) if it doesn’t feature strongly among the nominations at BAFTA, the Oscars and the European Film Awards in the coming winter season.

For now, its release in UK cinemas on Aug 31 should provide a balm for the end of summer days and a salve for anyone smarting from a summer romance. It should also make a star of Joanna Kulig.

When I met her at Cannes she was still reeling from the reception. “It’s amazing to be compared to Jeanne Moreau, of course,” she told me. “But actually, what Pawel the director kept telling me on set was that I should be ‘more Lauren Bacall’. I studied a lot of her on YouTube actually but still, whenever I’d get too excited or do too much for the camera, I’d hear Pawel whispering: ‘Lauren Bacall, Lauren Bacall.’”

Tomasz Kot in Cold War

Tomasz Kot

Her co-star Tomasz Kot adds: “And I think I was supposed to be Gregory Peck or Gary Cooper, that type. He said to me that I had a old-fashioned face, but the direction I remember most was: ‘Tomasz, you’re the man, don’t do anything, don’t act, you just smoke and walk.’”

They make an interesting pair. Kulig, 36, is a tiny powerhouse with a husky voice who, on screen, can exude a lusty sensuality and a bruised vulnerability practically in the same shot. She’s able to look glamorous and, in the next scene, positively dowdy. 

Kot, 41, is a long, bony, streak of a man, reminding me slightly of an ostrich, pecking at his cigarette with a nervousness that gives way to gales of laughter. Although he has made nearly 30 films in Poland, this will be a major breakthrough for him. With her added talents of singing and dancing, Kulig looks set to become the next major European acting star.

“We’re not an obvious couple, that’s for sure,” admits Kulig, “although we actually have played lovers before in a Polish rom com where our differences on screen were the joke. But this is a much more serious romance and our physical differences are very subtle, to suggest that maybe this love won’t ever quite be right.”

In the film, Wiktor ends up in Paris, playing in jazz bars and smoky clubs (Kot learned to play jazz and classical piano for the role) while Zula becomes a big star in Poland, as a singer in the Piaf mould, even releasing an album called, simply, Zula. “When I left the countryside to come to Krakow, I actually wanted to be a jazz singer and auditioned for jazz school,” she admits, “but I didn’t get in. Instead, I was accepted into the drama school and became an actress and studied dance. And now I guess I have some revenge because I have a jazz album with my photo on the cover, or a photo of Zula, at least.”

Kulig, in fact, does all her own singing in the film, and has been promoting the film with some concerts, performing the haunting folk songs that feature throughout the film. It turns out she’s a native of the mountain region where, in the film, Wiktor and his cultural task force recruit some of its folk singers.

 “I grew up with these traditional songs, at weddings, funerals,” recalls Kulig. “So I know that people sing because they have something to say, to express a feeling and that was very strong, very proud and nationalistic after the War but the government used it in a propagandist way. It was a very sad and difficult time for Poland and I think this film, through Wiktor and Zula, tries to capture that.”

Not to spoil it, but the film is dedicated in its last shot with a card that simply says: For My Parents.

Says Kot: “I knew that this was a film about Pawel’s parents but we weren’t playing them specifically. We were very much the characters of Wiktor and Zula and he never said ‘oh, my Dad would do it like this, or my Mum was more like that and would speak in such a way…’. 

With its unromantic title, Cold War, there is obviously a lot of politics at play in the movie, although these tend to take a background role, the sacrifices and difficulties and yes, even the romance, of the Iron Curtain and communism channelled through the turbulence of Wiktor and Zula’s love.

“For me the film is about love, not politics,” says Tomasz. “Love is how we survive, and will always be more lasting than politics- at least that’s what I believe so I went with that reading. Pawel just told us not to think too much but when you’re an actor, you have to have truth in your eyes at every moment, so it was important for me to understand what Wiktor was thinking, what his opinion would be and I saw him as an experienced guy, you know, a bit sophisticated, a trained musician who had travelled around before the War, so he knows of the Western world and what it can be.”

Adds Kulig: “And Zula is just a peasant girl, although she has had tough experiences, yet her force is what pushes her through. It’s definitely a metaphor for something I’m not sure we ever quite know for sure what that is, something very physical, I think. It’s about how we’ve got constructive and destructive forces in us at the same time.”

A picture of the Polish film Cold WarWith its tight budget and stripped-down aesthetic, there are many memorable shots and scenes in Cold War. The ending will haunt and frustrate as many people as it enchants, yet despite the anti-romantic sentiments on display, the are many moments of transcendent joy, including a dance scene to Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock that’s sure to become one of the film’s iconic moments, all shot in one serpentine take of Zula abandoning herself to the jitterbug.

“I must have done that scene 30 times,” recalls Joanna. “We shot it all on the same night to get it right so it was like being out clubbing or something but always the same dance to always the same song, but I’d been training so I was in good shape to cope with that.”

“It was ok for you,” chimes Tomasz. “I had to just sit at the bar, smoking and talking to the extras while you danced your way over to me. I smoked so many cigarettes and made very good friends with the extras, I tell you.”

With the music of composer Marcin Marsecki, as well as several jazz standards and that bit of rock ’n’ roll, the film is full of beauty, every shot looking like a frameable still photo, thanks to the photography of young Polish cameraman Lukasz Zal, to whom Pawlikowski gave a debut, hiring him practically straight out of Poland’s famed National film school in Lodz to shoot his Foreign Language Oscar winner, Ida, in 2013. The interiors are smoky and atmospheric while the exteriors highlight the stark splendour of the Polish countryside, as well as the grandure of some of the city architecture, some of it classical, some communist.

“I didn’t know we had so many beautiful places in our country,” remembers Tomasz. “It shocked me when we got to them. Pawel would take us and the crew to places we’d never visited, like the Poland-Ukraine border, and sometimes we’d be saying: well why here? where is this? why are you taking us out here? 

“And he’d just say it was somewhere he used to go to with his parents. And nobody asked any more questions. We just knew it was all very personal to him and I think this sentiment fed into the performances and the whole production.”

The result is a sublime film, one of the very best from Europe this year, full of music, love and despair. Much as it’s set in the past, you can’t help feeling there are deep chords of meaning in it for the present in Europe, too, certainly in the discordant politics blowing through the continent. It’s a complex movie, as severe as it is sexy, and far too smart – or hurt – to succumb to romantic notions that love can conquer all. That stuff is for the old films.

But amid the gloom, the smoke and the stormy forces of politics, it offers the soothing power of human desire and gentle breezes of hope. As well as the perennial joy of watching two great new actors in a masterly cinematic painting.

This article first appeared in the New European. Cold War is released on August 30.