As “Cold War” (2018) draws to its end, the penultimate scene places its protagonists, Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), on opposite ends of a table in a dilapidated labor camp shack, staring emptily at each other. The star-crossed lovers of Pawel Pawlikowski’s searing romantic drama never could have predicted that they would end up here: Yet there is an air of inevitability to their meeting, a sense that the film’s fast-paced 88 minutes have been pointing to this godforsaken quarry in a forgotten corner of Poland all along, without a frame wasted. As Wiktor and Zula journey across the Iron Curtain and back again, from the bombed-out, desiccated ruins of their home country to the sun-drenched promenades of the Dalmatian coast and the sultry streets of Paris, we are taken on an odyssey through the peaks and depths of the human soul.
“Cold War” is Pawlikowski’s first project since 2013’s “Ida,” which took home Poland’s first ever Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. While there are certainly thematic parallels between the two, “Cold War” has its own story to tell, loosely based on the courtship of Pawlikowski’s parents.
The film opens in 1949, with musician Wiktor traveling around the nation’s reeling countryside alongside a cynical partner Irena (Agata Kulesza), and his disingenuously perky Quisling-type government official (Borys Szyc), recruiting folk musicians on behalf of the new Communist Polish People’s Republic. Ostensibly, their mandate is to preserve Poland’s cultural heritage, a claim that one look by Irena skewers and reveals its true purpose: creating a musical propaganda troupe. They set up a music academy in an elegantly decaying manor house, and Zula quickly catches Wiktor’s eye, beginning a tumultuous romance.
Pawlikowski is a cinematic master of the unsaid, and his sparse method of storytelling both oozes film noir allure and perfectly captures the reality of people faced with war and totalitarianism on both sides of their history. We learn Zula’s name not from a personal introduction, but an offhand correction in a dance rehearsal. A fight after Zula reveals she is being blackmailed into informing on Wiktor is resolved not with a kiss-and-make-up, but simply by a gorgeous shot of Zula floating down a stream and singing. The very value of speaking is called into question; against a backdrop of unspeakable destruction and hopelessness, emotion is conveyed with the most delicate of glances and insinuations.
Shots like that earned “Cold War” an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography, along with nods for Best Foreign Film and Best Director for Pawlikowski. Shot in a deliciously old-school black and white, the film is, to put it simply, stunningly beautiful. Cinematographer Lukasz Zal (one of many holdovers from “Ida”) works in consummate synchronization with Pawlikowski, creating an arresting mood. The camera penetrates directly to the heart of the film; in conversation it pokes and prods, moving delicately but deliberately around the palpable, swirling emotion of the script. In quieter scenes, it hangs in judgment, standing resolute like the eyes of God. The highlights are too numerous to mention, but one particularly exquisite shot early in the film of the group’s van driving in a blinding, snowy landscape. In a matter of seconds, it weaves an otherworldly landscape, unsure if it is heaven or hell, and pushes the characters unsparingly to the precipice of figuring out which is which.
The film’s characters are more than a match for its technical prowess. Kot’s Wiktor is a picture of hope, melancholy and longing as he seeks both freedom and love, remaining somberly defiant in the face of the realization that his aims are impossible. Kulesza impresses as well in her short turn as the despondent Irena, a role reminiscent of her turn as ‘Red Wanda’ Gruz in “Ida.” “Cold War,” however, undoubtedly belongs to Joanna Kulig’s Zula. From her introduction as a fraud and a con, she grows into the film’s fierce, broken and resilient soul. Kulig imbues each delivery with the celluloid sheen of a bygone era, yet at the same time Zula remains remarkably real, believable and heartbreaking. She is pure, world-weary, brash, reckless and afraid all at once. In short, she is humanity, with all its highs, lows and torpid, decomposing indifference brutally intact, and Kulig shines as bright as Zula’s reality is bleak.
“Cold War” is an unforgettable story of intimate love pitted against a megalithic world of forces far beyond its characters’ control. Everything about it is simply stunning, from the acting and script to the picturesque camerawork. With this film, Pawlikowski continues to cement his place as one of the world’s foremost cinematic auteurs, and he has met his match in Kulig, its resplendent star. Where its characters are downtrodden, “Cold War” is triumphant.