After winning Best Director at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Polish auteur Pawel Pawlikowski stunned many pundits by a earning a Best Director nomination for the Oscars as well. As unexpected as that nod was, it is not undeserved because his latest film Cold War is cinema at its most ravishing – a monochrome feast of chilly negative space depicting the hot-embered inner conflicts of two lovers, and their tumultuously elliptical romance.
Similar to Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, this black and white film is also drawn from it’s director’s own family history, specifically the lives of Pawlikowski’s late parents. Shot in its period’s 4:3 aspect ratio, Cold War is a gorgeously rendered play of sketched-in memory that is potently personal, but also backdropped by political movements that betray human connection. Sparked by art and doomed by ideology, this love story spans decades and both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Beginning in postwar Poland during the late 1940s, we meet Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), an accomplished composer who is combing the Polish countryside in an effort to recruit talent for a travelling showcase meant to highlight the beauty of rural folk music. Young townspeople are invited to sing, perform and audition – which is where he is first enrapt by the luminous voice and ineffable charm of Zula (the astonishingly talented Joanna Kulig).
They engage in a passionate affair, even as Zula is forced to spy, and Wiktor’s project is co-opted by the Soviet propaganda machine to include more Stalinist messaging. During a tour stop in East Berlin, the couple hatch a plan to escape to the West. Unfortunately for Wiktor, Zula backs out at the last moment, forcing him to cross alone. It is this divergent path that catalyzes Cold War‘s long narrative of longing, as time and distance change them both.
Polish folk music now makes way for French jazz as Wiktor carves out a nice life for himself in 1950s Paris as a club pianist. Meanwhile, Zula finds acclaim in the production Wiktor left behind. Over the ensuing years, they are offered brief opportunities to reconnect, ranging from Zula’s tour coming to France, or Wiktor venturing to Yugoslavia to catch a performance. Heartbreakingly, these visits are far too short, and far too tinged with regret.
The film skips ahead years at a time, only allowing a window into Wiktor and Zula’s lives when they come across one another. We may not be intimately familiar with what happens between these chapters, but Pawlikowski succinctly shades in context through their evolving interactions and mannerisms. Their love may remain passionate, but they’ve grown to be fundamentally different people, unrecognizable aside from how they feel for each other.
At one point, Zula even decides to move to Paris to once again be with Wiktor. But despite their newfound physical closeness, it is here that their romance is at its most tragic, because Wiktor and Zula could not be further apart psychologically. Zula does not take to the decadent liberation of the West as well as Wiktor does, and it is this dissonance that drives them apart once again. As the story ventures into the 1960s, more events conspire to separate them.
Running at only 88 minutes, it is rare for a film this lean to feel so sweeping, and that’s largely due to Pawlikowski’s artful eye and storytelling efficacy. Each beautiful shot swallows you in it’s meditation of melancholy and memory, it’s soundtrack illustrates it’s protagonists psyche by contrasting the seductive freedom of jazz with the grounded emotion of folk – and that’s all buoyed by Joanna Kulig’s mesmerizing performance. Cold War is near-perfect gem.