Cold War is the latest film from Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, follow-up to his Oscar-winning drama Ida. Like that deeply intimate story of a young nun discovering the truth of her ancestry in post-war Poland, Cold War unfolds in the years after World War II, as that country begins to rebuild both its cities and its reputation, each quite damaged from years of combat and propaganda. Filmed in a lush black and white (also like Ida) that immediately conjures a sense of nostalgia and austerity, central to this story of starting over is an ill-fated love affair between a young performer (a simply astonishing Joanna Kulig) and the dashing instructor and band leader (Tomasz Kot) she meets when she auditions for a national performing group.
The two fall quickly for each other, as mismatched as they may be. Zula is bold and ambitious, eager to move on from the desolation of life during wartime and create something beautiful again, and with the talent she effortlessly displays at her auditions, she’s well on her way. Wiktor, heading up the performing troupe with two business partners, is pensive and reserved, and though he knows beauty when he sees it (he falls for Zula, after all), his wartime experiences find him hesitant to believe that anything good that comes his way will last long at all. As they tumble into each other (literally and figuratively), anyone who’s ever been in love will recognize that undeniable spark of new passion, a rush of heat and bliss and obliviousness that insists these two come together. That Pawlikowski captures that rare alchemy at all is an accomplishment, a credit to his writing, the actors and everyone involved in making the film. That he creates a moment so palpable it transcends the screen, where just one misstep in any number of aspects—casting, scoring, cinematography, you name it—could tank the whole thing, is exceptional.
Cold War runs just 88 minutes, a lean runtime by any standard; here, it’s more than enough time to follow Zula and Wiktore through decades and across a continent, as their love sparks and sputters again and again, as untenable as it is undeniable. What’s more, Pawlikowski doesn’t rely much at all on extended dialogue or exposition to put us right at the center of the most meaningful moments in their relationship. From early performances where they travel together across the country bringing traditional music and dance to their fellow citizens to Zula’s swinging solo performance in a bandshell decades later, it’s a film that takes an audience through major arcs of these character’s lives while never wasting a moment on superfluous subplots or back stories.
It’s also plain gorgeous to look at, punctuated by some of the most breathtaking shots seen on screen all year (cinematographer Lukasz Zal outdoes himself). Of particular note is Pawlikowski’s work with mirrors throughout, sometimes used quite simply but usually positioned and filmed in such a remarkable way (watch for a scene at a nightclub) that our own perspective is thrillingly unreliable. It’s a masterful technique, and it offers insight into just how off-balance Zula and Wiktore must feel, both with each other and in their new post-war reality.
It could be said that there isn’t enough to Cold War, that as it jumps from one point in the lovers’ lives to another there isn’t enough connective tissue to leave an impression. It’s a shortsighted take at best, as in fact Pawlikowski goes to great lengths to make sure we are just as enthralled with Zula, Wiktor and the peripheral players in their story when we meet them as we are when we leave them. A single folk song finds it way into nearly every era, reinterpreted and reimagined to serve the moment; featured a bit in the trailer, you’ll have it—and this film—stuck in your head long after leaving the theater. There’s a reason it’s landed on many year-end Best Of lists and remains a front runner in the Foreign Language Oscar race (in a very strong year, no less), and it’s because, like Ida before it, Pawlikowski has crafted a work of art.
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