If you’ve read this blog you know that foreign films are not my specialty but thanks to movies like “Roma” I’ve opened up to reviewing them from time to time. However not since “The Passion of the Christ” have I seen a completely subtitled foreign language film in theaters. That is until I decided to give the Academy Award nominated and highly recommended Polish film “Cold War” a chance. Earning nominations for cinematography, foreign language film and director for Pawel Pawlikowski “Cold War” was released in numerous countries in 2018 but received very limited release in the United States before Christmas before officially receiving a limited wide release in 2019. Exploring a tragic love story in the era of world history that gives the movie its name, “Cold War” has received critical acclaim around the world so I decided to share my own opinion on the product. So here it is, my review of “Cold War”.
Loosely inspired by the love story of Pawel Pawlikowski’s own parents, “Cold War” stars Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot as singer Zula and musician Wiktor respectively. Zula is selected to be part of a traveling show which Wiktor helps produce leading the two to spark a romance. As the show becomes a tool for spreading communist propaganda Wiktor decides to leave Poland behind and find freedom in France while Zula refuses to depart from the show. Over the next decade or so (the late 40s into the 1960s) the two musicians cross each other’s paths numerous times rekindling their relationship time and time again as outside forces and the culture of the world around them creates interference while their own personal differences strain their bond even further. The result is a love story that explores the bonds of lovers and the impact of culture on relationships in an era of constant insecurity in world history.
To start, “Cold War” is an amazingly acted film focused squarely on Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot as lovers Zula and Wiktor. Their chemistry is undeniable even when we’re given minimal time to embrace or understand what brings them together and what keeps them longing for each other as the years go by. We’ve seen love stories like this many times. Hell, fellow Oscar nominee “A Star is Born”, my favorite movies from 2018, explored a similar kind of dynamic as two musicians are forced to manage what sets them apart as they also struggle with the undeniable urge to be together. “Cold War” however is a much more subtle examination of the relationship with each interaction and conversation feeling raw, real and sometimes even uncomfortable. While there aren’t a lot of side characters in this film the ones we do get to see help further develop the main relationship through their interference or interactions with either of the leads to the point where no part feels too small when trying to understand the overall narrative. To put it in simple terms: the performances drive home the story. Not the script, which itself is very well written. The performers make everything believable and the writing allows the actors to bring things to life without trying too hard to force-feed moments to the viewer. It all comes together to create a carefully crafted look as a tragic reality for two lovers caught in a tumultuous time for the entire world. A snapshot, if you will, of how one’s environment and personal growth can impact even the strongest of bonds.
And that’s just the start of it. The writing on this film is satisfyingly simple to the point where the dialogue, even when converted to subtitles, feels fluid and natural rather than trying to amp up the drama by force. But, it’s not just the writing and the acting that work. The overall presentation, all done in stark black and white, is fantastic. The lack of color forces you to focus less on the setting and more on the story by eliminating the distractions of the background while never forsaking the atmosphere. It also serves as a by of ironic symbolism representing both the world it is set in and the relationship it focuses on in the sense that while everything is shown in black and white, reality and relationships are anything but. This is also present in the ever-changing music of the film which evolves from traditional folk music to the more chaotic jazz style. This progression takes place at the same time as the relationship showing us the shift from Zula and Wiktor’s simple beginnings based on pure motivations to their more risqué, unbalanced and even sometimes toxic obsession with each other that burns hotter and hotter with each passing encounter.
As you can probably already tell just from the statements above, “Cold War” is a very artistic film combining carefully crafted elements to create a mesmerizing, if brief, experience like few love stories in recent memory. Pawel Pawlikowski, who wrote and directed the picture, earns his Best Director nomination as well as the cinematography nod for his spectacular camerawork and attention to detail that kept me mesmerized from the first frame to the last. It should be noted though that, like fellow Oscar nominee “Roma”, this is NOT a movie meant to entertain. It’s a movie meant to reflect a certain artistic style and represent a raw, very human story in a way movies were always meant to do. This is an intense and sometimes tragic love story that rivals anything Hollywood has ever cooked up and left me pondering about its deeper meanings and it’s brilliance long after I walked out of the theater. This is the kind of film that often goes underappreciated by an audience looking for more pulse pounding stories and pandering tearjerkers. I warn you that “Cold War” is neither of those although it still manages to be both engaging and an emotional experience in its own right. Each frame, detail and moment is presented with conviction and care in an attempt to open viewer’s minds to a reality often overshadowed by movies made more to entertain than to enlighten.
“Cold War’s” only real flaw in my eyes in how short the experience is. At only 89 minutes with credits (I calculated about an hour and fifteen minutes of actual film time) “Cold War” fits its love story in a tight package that might be a little too brief. There were elements of this love story I would had liked to see expanded or explored a little further, especially the setup which shows us a relationship that just kind of happens with only small glimpses of how it initially developed. I’ll admit I was a little confused at the start as to whether or not Zula was even a main character because of how sudden her and Wiktor’s relationship began. It would have been nice to get an even more in-depth presentation of the chemistry and mutual experiences of the two lovers as sometimes it can be a little difficult to fully invest in a story that moves so fast and covers over ten years of relationship building in such a short time. Still, it’s a small complaint that would have only improved an already amazing piece of filmmaking. I honestly did not expect to appreciate “Cold War” as much as I did and while it could have offered a lot more this picture proves that great love stories don’t need forced drama or an overblown formulaic narrative to be effective.
I’m really glad I chose to experience “Cold War” because that’s exactly what it is, an experience. It’s not fun. It’s not entertaining. It’s not an overly dramatic tearjerker and it doesn’t have to be any of those things. It’s just a raw, pure, and gorgeous look at the beauty and tragedy of love and life in a time where the world itself was so rattled by the fear of chaos that it was near impossible to ever find a solid peace of mind to begin with. It’s a truly amazing film, beautifully shot, artistically crafted, amazingly performed and carefully written to capture every detail as if painting a picture of life. This is the kind of art cinema was created to produce and much like “Roma”, “Cold War” is setting a new bar for what makes a movie the perfect interpretation of reality. More than anything though “Cold War” is an incredible love story and one of the most mesmerizing and tragic romances I’ve ever seen on the big screen. It might take a short while to get into it and it’s certainly not for the average moviegoer looking to spend their money on escapism, but for those willing to embrace a truly astounding example of modern filmmaking at its best “Cold War” is definitely worth a look.