COLD WAR – Review
The Oscar-nominated COLD WAR is a brilliant, beautiful film about a passionate romance between two mismatched people, set against the backdrop of communist Poland and the Cold War. Shot in gorgeous black and white, director Pawel Pawlikowski’s Polish-language drama traces the ill-fated, incendiary love affair of two musicians through fifteen years, from their meeting in 1949 communist Poland through the decay of Polish communism throughout the Cold War, as the couple cross back and forth over what was called the Iron Curtain. The story is inspired by the director’s own parents, with the characters sharing their names.
COLD WAR is a compelling romantic drama is full of tragic twists of fate and history, about two people of differing background and personality yet bound by irresistible attraction, all further complicated by the impossible situation of the times in which they lived. Tale is brought to vibrant life by the two appealing actors playing the star-crossed couple, aided by a fabulous jazz-driven score and beautiful photography.
Pawlikowski’s previous film IDA won the 2018 Oscar for foreign-language film, and COLD WAR is among this year’s nominees for that Oscar, as well as winning Pawlikowski the Best Director award at Cannes. Like IDA, the director uses lush black and white photography to tell a historical story that blends the personal and the political. The film is short, a mere 89 minutes, and skips ahead in time between scenes, leaving us wanting to know more. At the center is the star-crossed love story, inspired by the director’s parents, with a charismatic pair of actors whose vibrant performances
Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is the musical expert and piano accompanist of an ethnographic team collecting Polish folk songs and dances in rural areas. Ethnographer Irena (the excellent Agata Kulesza) is not only recording these vanishing mountain folk songs but she and Wiktor have been tasked by the Polish government to recruit young people from mountain villages for a new school devoted to the preservation of rural folk music. The plan is to train these young people for a program of traditional rural songs and dances, to be presented on stage around Poland, as a way to promote national pride and patriotism.
Blonde teen Zula (Joanna Kulig) is among the young people auditioning with folk songs or dances. Although it quickly becomes clear she is only pretending to be a mountain girl, Wiktor is struck by her potential star-power more than her voice, and persuades Irena to accept her in the program, even though she is not “authentic.” Wiktor and Irena stick by their choice, even when it comes out Zula is on parole for attacking her father. “He mistook me for my mother so I showed him the difference with a knife,” she coolly states when asked about her crime, a statement that illustrates both the dry wit and strong spirit of the ambitious Zula.
Overseeing the project is a Communist Party operative, Kaczmarek (an oily Borys Szyc), who gives ideological speeches to the young recruits and also keeps an eye on Wiktor and Irena. Irena and Wiktor set up an academy devoted to folk music in a rundown mansion, and start training the recruits for a patriotic production of traditional rural Polish dances and songs. Despite their differences in age, education, background and temperament, Wiktor and Zula are romantically attracted.
Zula proves a fast-learner and quickly ascends to a star position in the folk music production that academy tours around Poland. The folk music troupe becomes a hit in the Communist world, with Zula as its star, and they are invited to tour Russia and East Germany. Success brings pressure from Communist Party officials to incorporate propaganda pieces about land reform and praising Stalin into the folk music program. Alarmed at the violation of her program’s mission of preserving authentic folk culture, Irena gently points out that Polish peasants did not sing about such matters and there are no traditional folk songs about land reform. She is overruled, and at the next performance, we see a grim-faced Irena watching her troupe perform a musical number lauding Stalin under a larger banner of his image.
The writing is on the wall. While the troupe is performing in East Berlin, Wiktor tries to persuade Zula to defect to the West but she hesitates. In the communist world, Zula is a star but she is uncertain what awaits in the West. Divided by the Iron Curtain, neither can let go of the other, and they begin a back-and-forth relationship across the Cold War’s divide.
This mismatched couple would have challenges in any case but their difficulties are amplified tragically by the twist of fate that places them in the midst of the Cold War and at it’s most dangerous boundaries. The story ranges across Europe, from Berlin to Italy to Poland to Yugoslavia. The intersection of obsessive, passionate love and political conflict and intrigue heightens the film’s tensions to thriller levels. Pawlikowski avoids a pat sentimental romantic ending, giving us something far more striking.
The acting is superb, and the charismatic leads are one of three strong elements that make this film. Tomasz Kot is perfect as the romantic leading man but it is Joanna Kulig who is truly riveting on screen, as the complicated Zula. The characters are so appealing that we root for them and their love, even when both of them behave badly. In what may be a breakout, Joanna Kulig is fascinating to watch, by turns a petulant, mood woman, a scheming teen and a devoted lover. Her appearance seems to shift, from poised beauty to plain peasant. The obsession both characters feel draws them together repeatedly, a force we can sense on screening. Yet once together, their strong wills and differing views lead the to pick at each other and constantly bicker. Yet, Wiktor at one point in the film calls Zula the “woman of his life.” Sometimes tragic events separate them, sometimes their own temperaments do, but neither can entirely leave. The tension and the passion keep the audience riveted.
With its short running time, the story is very spare, and there are moments when we long for more details. Still, the director gives us enough to understand the couple and paints events, political and romantic, in an effective, impressionistic style.
If nothing else, COLD WAR is a visual delight, one of this year’s two Oscar-nominated films to use black and white photography to great dramatic effect, the other being ROMA. Pawlikowski shows off his considerable skill for the image on screen with artistically-framed black and white imagery and the use of an old-fashioned aspect ratio suits the historical period. The director to mesmerize the audience with the sheer beauty of the visuals, often centrally framed or with the characters set in crowded locations. In one disorienting scene, we see Wiktor and Irena at a crowded reception after a performance, only to realize the presence of a mirrored wall is distorting what we think we see, a nice visual allusion to illusions.
Another delight of COLD WAR is its strong use of music, particularly jazz. The characters at the center are musicians, and the score is filled with music ranging from classical, to Polish folk songs, to jazz. Jazz was forbidden music in communist Poland, heightening its appeal to the classically-trained Wiktor, who at one point is eking out a living playing in a jazz band in Paris. The starving artist romance of Wiktor’s spare apartment and marginal existence escapes once-poor Zula, who prefers her Soviet stardom. One of the Polish folk music show’s most popular centerpieces is a traditional Polish love song about star-crossed lovers. It becomes Zula’s signature song, one that appears again and again, in various forms, throughout the film. As the film progresses through time, the music evolves, from the classical and folk music to the jazz of 1950s Paris to early rock and roll.
COLD WAR is a remarkable, haunting film about a fiery but doomed romance against the backdrop of history, a film greatly fired up by the two excellent romantic leads and its jazz score.
COLD WAR, in Polish with English subtitles, opens Friday, Jan. 25, at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinema.
RATING: 5 out of 5 stars