Movie Review – Cold War

Cold War (2018)
Written Pawel Pawlikowski & Janusz Glowacki (with collaboration from Piotr Borkowski)
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

In 1949, Wiktor Warski and two colleagues traveled across rural Poland recording the folk music of the peasants. Using these recordings, they open a music school where they audition youths to become part of a traveling repertoire that will highlight the vanishing old world culture of the nation. Wiktor is instantly smitten by Zula, a young woman who shows remarkable will. The two quickly get caught up in a love affair. As the students perform they gain acclaim and interest from the Communist Party who pressures them to write a song about Stalin in the style of Polish folk music. This begins a fracturing and leads Wiktor to plan a defection when they travel to perform in the Soviet sector of Berlin. From there Wiktor and Zula start a thirteen-year-long struggle, falling in and out of love, drawn to each other by some invisible force greater than themselves.

In the span of just 88 minutes director, Pawel Pawlikowski tells a complete sweeping story of a tragic love affair over an entire decade. I never felt the runtime but never sensed that important moments were being rushed. When the scene needs to linger, it does so as long as it needs, but when a moment should be fleeting, you must hurry to hold onto it. There are lots of music moments ranging in style from Polish folk music to smokey Parisian jazz to Cuban. As expected the music tells an important story, like in a musical working as the expression on the internal thoughts. There’s a folk song sung from the point of view of young lovers whom Fate has kept apart, a lamentation. The song is transformed over the course of the film and reflects both the changes in Zula and Wiktor’s relationship as well as commentary on the loss of Polish identity to powers beyond their borders.

The cinematography in Cold War is of such a high caliber that it is difficult to convey adequately. The film is shot in black and white with such crisp lighting and use of shadows. Every scene feels rich and textured, the tattered jacket of a peasant looks like you could reach out and touch the rough fibers. The camera also moves beautifully through the most elaborate dance scenes and even in quiet, simple ones. After a tryst in a meadow, Zula jumps into a nearby pond. We see only her face and hands above the water, and light bounces off it to create a white, creamy color. Both Zula rotates in the water singing while the camera moves slowly in the opposite direction. The scene is entirely hypnotic, looking so ethereal.

On paper, Cold War doesn’t present a story that seems unique, but both the technical aspects and performances elevate the work from being lost in the shuffle and into a profound work of cinema. Joanna Kulig who plays Zula delivers an astonishing performance, aided by makeup and hair she transforms from a suspicious young woman into a worn down middle-aged woman by the end. She exudes the fear of venturing into the unknown and then the exhaustion of being unable to find ones place between two worlds. The sense of tension between the West and the Communist East is palpable. These are just artists who don’t feel they should have to align themselves with ideologies, yet the power structures understand that their art is a potent tool.

Cold War is the tale of a sad, destructive relationship painted across the screen in such tragic beauty. Zula and Wiktor are immediately made into compelling figures, struggling against the backdrop of the time and place in which they’ve been dropped. Their love is in contrast to how others seek to use them and so they ultimately will be unable to find happiness. Pawel Pawlikowski dedicates the picture to his parents whose courtship was equally tumultuous with multiple divorces and reconciliations. Pawlikowski’s parents did eventually find that happy ending that Zula and Wiktor ache to have.

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