“Cold War” is a love story that reminds us how it feels to be in love. It’s a film that focuses on faces, and the looks two lovers give each other from across a room. It deals in moments, some of them small, and some of them large, but all of them are about longing, passion, and heartache. It’s also about how the changing of the world can keep two people apart, and how their love can transcend time.
“Cold War” opens in 1949 Poland. We are drawn in by the faces of local villagers singing or playing folk songs. Their songs, most of which are mournful folk tales, are being recorded by Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) two artists who are preparing to produce a travelling road show based on traditional Polish music. They soon begin auditions with young singers, and one of them happens to be Zula (Joanna Kulig), an enigmatic young woman who seems to con herself into an audition by performing a non-traditional Russian song. Wiktor sees something in the young Zula, and decides to put her in the group, and it isn’t too long before the two begin a passionate affair.
The troupe becomes a success, but the world has changed, and pretty soon the show is forced to alter their format to sing the praises of Stalin and the communist party. This doesn’t sit well for Wiktor who plans to leave for Paris with Zula. The two prepare to escape together, but Zula ends up staying behind, while Wiktor smuggles himself out. The two will meet again at different times in the total span of fifteen years, some of them are small moments, such as Wiktor seeing Zula in a concert but unable to speak to her. Other times, it could be an extended period where they do share a life together in Paris but that moment is also cut short.
The film was directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, who’s previous film “Ida” won the best foreign film Oscar of that year. With that film, as with this, he composes his shots in black and white as well as reverting to the standard Academy aspect ratio evoking the classical look of films from the 30s and 40s. At the beginning of the film, there is a sense of authentic time and place of post-war Poland which brings to mind Italian neo-realism, yet when we move to mid-fifties Paris, there is a much more romantic approach with smoky jazz clubs, and softer lighting, where everyone seems to be smoking a cigarette. It’s a small subtle change but the tone never shifts from the intimate lives of our two main lovers.
The film is very economic, and the scenes play out almost like a memory. Even though the time covers roughly fifteen years, it never lingers, it’s more interested in conveying the emotion and subtle gestures of human interaction. One could imagine a Hollywood film with a similar story such as “La La Land” or any iteration of “A Star is Born” which might concern itself with story beats in order to get to a forgone conclusion, but “Cold War” plays its beats like a dream where conventional time becomes irrelevant. The black and white brings us back into the past of these two people so it already seems like their story has been played out. In some ways it’s like looking at a scrap book, and seeing images that pop out at us that leave a lasting impact. Sometimes it can just be one moment that tells us all we have to know.
Pawlikowski is a master of showing and not telling us, he gives us these moments to view and ponder, and sometimes he leaves it to our imagination. Personally speaking when I was watching some of these images wash over me, I was taken back to that feeling of being in love. Seeing Wiktor and Zula together, or just seeing them look at eachother from across a room, where the focus is on their faces, and everything else seems to drift away, filled me with so much emotion, it became heartbreaking. Their story unfolds in their gaze and in their touch, sometimes words don’t have to be spoken. Love is a universal language, and this is one of the strongest love stories I’ve seen in a long time.
4 stars out of 4