Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Starring: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot
As far as the musicality and the themes of impossible love are concerned, Pawel Pawlikowski’s latest could fit on a double bill with La La Land or Casablanca, despite being the lesser film of either events. There’s a great deal of romantic gumption to be found in Pawlikowski’s love saga, and with its setting, its black-and-white presentation, and the music we are given, we are reminded of the transportive qualities of cinema. Somewhere in its parallels between the dualities of war and the dualities of self, both romantic and professional, you’ll lose yourself in Cold War.
Given the director’s origin and the title of this feature, its not difficult to predict the story’s time and setting. Wiktor Warski (Kot) is a music director and recruiter for an elite group of Polish performers, and Zuzanna “Zula” Lichon is an aspiring singer who enrolls there. At first there are only a few extended glances. And instead of any awkward stumbling dialogue or any derivative “meet-cute,” we cut very abruptly to a close up of an intimate moment between the two. And that explains this film’s presentation is in a nutshell—it cuts out the bullshit and gives us the meat of the connection between our two lovers. From there, the film is less a narrative and more a stylish and tragic montage, one that maintains the quietude of the titular Cold War. There’s distance, heartbreak, rekindling, and of course the most destructive kind of distance—the silent one from across the bed.
There’s a heavy use of static camera, and with the film’s tight aspect ratio, it lends itself to a certain nostalgic feeling. You feel the film could’ve been made up to fifty years prior, but despite telling the kind of story that even Shakespeare tackled, it feels fresh thanks to the actors’ bravado and the timeless relevance of war of any kind. It is not exclusively in stylistic choices that earned Pawlikowski’s Oscar nomination though; when the camera moves, it is oftentimes with a great deal of relevance to the scene, to add intensity to a certain moment, like when the musical style of the movie is switching to jazz, and we get fast shifts to the different players, making the music feel sporadic and “in the moment.” The most impressive shot of this movie is a singular tracking shot of an intoxicated Zula dancing with multiple men sequentially while her beloved Wiktor is sitting contemptuously at the bar. In the chaos of this dance scene, we expect Wiktor to come in at every turn in a jealous rage, but instead Pawlikowski allows this tension to marinate further into their relationship, and the audience’s relationship to the couple becomes all the more invested.
As for criticisms, this film could’ve easily been much longer; I fantasize as I write this, about at least a two-hour cut of this epic on the loveless nature of political circumstances, and of the cost of chasing your dreams and compromising them with those whom you love. But Pawlikowski’s style is more minimalist than that, often with scenes ending with quick cuts to black, not dissimilar to Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise. This can be chalked up as another stylistic choice however, and some viewers will love it all the more for its simplicity.
Another fault this film has is within the psyches of the characters themselves. While the political climate driving two people apart is always a great formula for tragedy (see Doctor Zhivago), you also get a sense that had this taken place in the modern day, their relationship would also be simply a pit stop on the road to true happiness. In a way (no spoilers) this makes the film’s final minutes all the more tragic, but simultaneously it does glorify certain dysfunctions and unhealthy behaviors that should not be generally condoned.
It does raise the question, however, as to whether or not we’re truly compatible with the ones we feel the strongest affections towards. Anton Chekhov believed that the objective of art was not to answer questions, but to raise them, and I believe Pawlikowski’s Cold War raises them, for better or for worse.