Review: Cold War (2018)


Paweł Pawlikowski, who directed the transcendental drama Ida back in 2013, returns with Cold War, a romance set during the 1950s and 60s in politically-divided Europe. Like Ida, Cold War is a beautiful film, shot in the Academy aspect ratio in black and white. Also like Ida, it explores Poland’s political past, showing how World War II and the Cold War shaped the lives of Poland’s people in ways both mundane and profound. In many ways, it’s an extension of a scene late in Ida, where that film’s central character, a novitiate nun, hooks up with a musician while mulling over her future. In that film, the smooth, sexy jazz in a tiny bar offers a respite from the cold winters and even colder encounters the protagonist has with her fellow Poles; it’s some warmth in a frigid world. Cold War takes the dichotomy of that one scene and makes it the focus of the whole film; here, music is not only a release from harsh circumstances, but the only way to express yourself in a world that refuses you expression, let alone love.

In Cold War, the protagonists are two musicians, Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), who are repeatedly drawn together over the years in various locations on either side of the Iron Curtain, mainly in Warsaw and Paris. They find each other because of music, and their shared passion for music and mutual physical attraction fuels an on-and-off romance that seems more predestined than passionate. Many people have commented that Zula and Wiktor’s lack of actual affection for each other and the film’s icy remove from their internal lives speaks to an emotional hole at the film’s centre, but I contend that their emotional disconnection (with each other and with the audience) is part of the film’s design.

In Cold War, Zula and Wiktor’s romance is sexy, instinctual, and messy, but it’s not fulfilling, nor healing. They are mere ships in the sea of history, thrust together by the swelling waves. What they don’t realize is that their excitement together is more a result of their excitement at their tumultuous circumstances than actual love of each other’s company; when they’re left to themselves with no external conflict trying to force them apart, their love wanes. This gives the film a tragic heft that carries it through to its melancholy conclusion.

On Letterboxd, Michael Sicinski notes that Pawlikowski uses Soviet montage in his visual construction of the film. While I would have to study the film shot-by-shot to give proper examples of this, I do think his comment hits on something essential to Cold War’s effect, which is that every scene operates in the shadow of history, overwhelmed by the political and geographic contexts that the characters inhabit. There’s perhaps no better example of this than a folk performance about 30 minutes in the film, where Zula performs a traditional Polish song and dance against a backdrop of a massive banner of Josef Stalin unfurling from the ceiling. This is an obvious visual construction, but other scenes explore this approach in more subtle ways, showcasing this intimate romance, and these two characters bound by a rapturous love affair, against the backdrop of the buildings, the crowds, and the masses that surround them. Extreme close-ups cut to wide shots. Crowded interior scenes immediately follow exterior scenes where the characters are alone. Zula and Wiktor are always overshadowed by the world around them, which is tragic, but to a great extent true of all of us.

The combination of this political insight with the beguiling performances by Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot, not to mention the film’s stunning formal presentation, makes Cold War one of my favourite art films of recent years. The musical scenes are beautiful, and not just the jazz scenes, but also the Polish folk songs that reek of propaganda; despite their nakedly political nature, they are performed with passion and genuine artistry. For me, the music and the tragic nature of Zula and Wiktor’s circumstances provide the emotion that others find lacking here. Combine Cold War with Lázsló Nemes’ upcoming Sunset (which I adored when I saw it at TIFF) for a masterclass on how politics and the forces of history can invade every aspect of a person’s life.

9 out of 10

Cold War (2018, Poland/France/United Kingdom)

Directed by Paweł Pawlikowski; written by Paweł Pawlikowski, Janusz Glowacki, and Piotr Borkowski; starring Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cedric Kahn, Jeanne Balibar.