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  • Writer's pictureGarrett Brodey

Zula Lichoń: One Of My Favorite Film Characters

Zula Lichoń is one of my favorite film characters. She’s played by the wonderful Joanna Kulig and she’s the co-lead of the masterpiece, Cold War. Her performance is one of my favorite performances of all time. She is magnificent. I’ll be going into why she’s one of my favorite film characters, so spoilers for her character and the film.

Cold War (2018) is my second favorite film of all time. It's a Polish film made by a brilliant filmmaker, Paweł Pawlikowski. The film is set in the 1950s, where a music director falls in love with a singer, and he tries to persuade her to flee communist Poland for France. 

When we meet Zula, she seems like a nice girl but with an agenda. We quickly learn that she has a troubled past. It’s implied that her father was abusive and she had to fend for herself a lot. There’s a moment where Wiktor asked Zula about her troubled past and she answers with:

“He (her father) mistook me for my mother and a knife showed him the difference.”

That’s all we need to know from that one line. It’s brilliantly written. Zula didn’t come from money, so she dreamed of making it big. Those dreams, though, made her fight for her survival. She meets Wiktor Warski, played by the great Tomasz Kot, and they fall in love. The film is mostly explored through the perspective of Wiktor but we get to see Zula’s story as well. When it comes to the relationship, the main characters have a "love at first sight" moment when they first meet. You can feel it when they look into each other's eyes. It's so beautiful. The main leads have some of the best chemistry I've ever seen. 

I should mention Mazowsze. The Mazowsze is a famous Polish folk group. It is named after the Mazowsze region of Poland. The film starts off with the main characters starting the group. Witkor, the director of music, and Irena, the dance instructor, are doing it for the art of the music, while Kaczmarek, an important character who’s in charge, is only in it for the money. We learn pretty early that Kaczmarek has a thing for Zula and is aware of her love of Wiktor. This is important for later.

Throughout the film, Wiktor and Zula aren’t together and we see how they live without each other. When Wiktor wants to flee to France, he knows what he wants out of that life, but for Zula, she decides to stay because she doesn't know what she wants. It makes sense because that's who they are as characters at that very moment. We know Zula wants to be with Wiktor, but that probably wasn’t the best choice for her at that moment. Wiktor eventually flees from the group out of East Berlin illegally. In a later scene, Wiktor visits Yugoslavia to watch Zula perform. Kaczmarek spots him and they briefly speak. After the performance, Wiktor is escorted out and blackmailed to never return to watch otherwise he will be turned in to the authorities. Kaczmarek clearly wants Zula all to himself. She doesn’t get a choice in the matter, but does what she has to do to survive. 

The 2nd act, my favorite part of the film, shows Wiktor in Paris, working at a jazz bar, and with a French woman he doesn’t love. Zula eventually comes back into his life and we find out she married an Italian man to be able to move countries legally. They start seeing each other again and it’s beautiful to see them fall in love again. My favorite scene in the film is Zula singing Dwa Serduszka in le éclipse, with the camera circling her. It is pure cinema. 

Further in the film, Zula is still finding out who she is. Even when she has everything she wants in Paris, it’s not fulfilling for her. That’s what makes her so fascinating. She feels like a real person. We can understand that feeling. What if we had everything we ever wanted but we don’t feel at home. That’s her problem. She wants to be back in Poland but she can’t because Wiktor will be arrested and thrown in prison for a long time. 

Zula eventually leaves, and Witkor makes the hard decision to go back for her. He makes a deal with Poland to serve a "generous" 15 years of hard labor on charges of defecting and espionage. Zula visits him and they have a heartbreaking moment. You can tell how much they missed each other. Zula promises to help him get out of there and she does. He’s out within 5 years. Zula got Wiktor an early release by agreeing to marry Kaczmarek. She even had a son with him. That is heartbreaking to see because you know that’s not what she wanted, but again, she did what she had to do to survive. In this case, she did a lot to save Wiktor. 

In the end, the two go to a decrepit church that the film showed in the beginning, in the middle of nowhere. They get married and then they take a dozen or so pills. They loved each other that much they decided to take their own lives after marrying each other. The final shot and dialogue are so powerful. They’re sitting on a bench in the middle of nowhere. Zula says "Let's sit over there, the view is better." They move out of frame and the shot holds to the last thing they'll ever see alive. It’s brilliant, powerful, and emotional.

Zula, in the end, gets what she wants, but she had to fight hard for it. She ended up being with a man she didn’t love and having a child with him just to get her true love out of trouble. Paweł Pawlikowski and Joanna Kulig crafted a rich and fascinating character. What a character, what a film.

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