Born and raised in Europe, Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski has become an auteur in his own right since venturing from documentary filmmaking to narrative features in the late 90s, and broke through to American audiences upon winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2014 with Ida. His new film, Cold War, is a period romance about two lovers who meet and drift apart only to reunite and leave each other over the course of several years, and it finally arrives in theaters outside of major markets to critical acclaim and awards season recognition that’s without question well-deserved.
A pianist and a singer fall in love upon meeting in a troupe of folk singers, only to be forced to perform Communist propaganda. Will their love survive the regime, or will the weight of a decision haunt them at every turn?
Last Tuesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the nominees for the 91st annual Academy Awards to an overwhelmingly negative response for a variety of reasons: those being the lack of nominations for Damien Chazelle’s grounded, dramatic biopic First Man, too much recognition for mediocre movies such as Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody, and no recognition whatsoever for the plethora of films from female directors. While those criticisms are valid without question, some form of credit has to be given to the Academy for at least nominating directors from a variety of nationalities. Vice director Adam McKay and BlackkKlansman director Spike Lee are the respective Caucasian and African-American nominees, while the countries of Greece and Mexico were represented by Yorgos Lanthimos and Alfonso Cuaron for The Favourite and Roma, respectively.
The country of Poland was also represented in the Best Director category by Pawel Pawlikowski, who previously won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2014 for Ida, a film about a young woman who must decide whether to live the rest of her life as a Catholic nun after discovering a revelation about her birth family. Ida had a compelling narrative with weighty spiritual themes, nuanced performances, and a unique visual style. Pawlikowski carried all of that and more into making his newest film Cold War, which was nominated for three Oscars at this year’s ceremony (Director, Cinematography, Foreign Language Film), and is worth discussing in the conversation about the best movies of last year thanks to the intimacy Pawlikowski conveys in his refined direction, gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, and a beautiful use of music that reinforces the heartbreak of romance at the center of its narrative.
Dedicated to his parents, the story of Cold War is a personal one for Pawlikowski to tell. In post-WWII Poland, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) plays the piano for a traveling company of folk musicians recruiting new singers for their stage productions. One woman that auditions for the troupe is Zula (Joanna Kulig), who lives on parole after killing her father in self-defense. The two fall madly in love with each other after their first practice together, and for the briefest of moments, everything is perfect for the two lovers.
But then, the company for which they perform is ordered to sing pro-Communist propaganda in exchange for a tour across the finest cities of Europe. The company accepts the government’s terms to disappointment from Wiktor, and he and Zula agree to escape after their show in East Berlin, hoping to begin life anew as musicians in Western Europe. But Zula stands him up, and Wiktor is forced to leave the country alone. From there, the two lovers reunite and drift apart more than once over the span of fifteen years, driven by their love in hopes it can conquer the long distance and political climate in which they live.
And the dreary conditions of the continent is crafted in striking fashion thanks to gorgeous cinematography from Lukasz Zal. At just 37 years young, Zal positions his camera in a way that frames the characters of Cold War on the bottom half of a 4:3 frame not only to draw our attention to them, but also to isolate them in the bleak circumstances of post-war Europe. In an early scene, Lech Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), the bureaucrat in charge of the theater company, explores the remains of a nearby forest and a dilapidated church. The wide shots in this sequence capture the ethereal, but depressing mood of the dying, foggy forest, while closeups of the environment establish Kaczmarek’s feeling of eternal judgement by the faded visage and roofless ceiling of the ruined temple.
The cinematography also aids in the romance at the film’s core by shooting with a depth of field that centers our characters as if they’re two lovers in a sea of faces. An example comes after a performance early in the film, where Wiktor stands in front of hundreds of theater-goers and party guests, ensuring that his attention isn’t on them, but on Zula, whose own eyes are locked on him in the reverse shot, regardless of how many singers are surrounding her. Meanwhile, reunions in Wiktor’s apartment are shot with only a backlight, upping the intimacy and beauty of Zula and Wiktor’s relationship as their silhouetted faces crash against each other with each passionate kiss and loving embrace.
And all of this would not be possible without Pawlikowski’s concise direction. Like Ida before it, he forgoes telling the story of Cold War with any form of melodrama, instead electing to use nuance and an atmospheric tone in a way that immerses the audience into the world and emotional state of his characters. The aforementioned depth of field coupled with off-center framing of Zula and Wiktor is reflective of their respective societal, political and economic stresses: in an early scene, Zula auditions for the folk music troupe, but is asked to leave before she can finish. But Zula knows the poverty that awaits her if she is rejected, because it’s represented by the women in tattered clothing in line behind her in the background. Her desperation for employment wills her to continue with the song anyway, and it pays off in spades. Meanwhile, the folk musicians feel the ruthlessness of Joseph Stalin as soon as they perform their first piece of Communist propaganda from the bottom of the frame as a giant banner of the Soviet dictator unfurls behind them.
These visuals also aid in emphasizing the intimacy and romance of Wiktor and Zula: in a late-night reunion, the lone diner employee works deep in the background as the two lovers share extended silences and take in the diegetic ambience of the location, in addition to each other’s company. Zula and Wiktor want to preserve each moment they spend together as much as audiences will want to see them stay by each other’s side, and this desperation and longing can be recognized in the nuances of Kulig and Kot’s subtle but powerful lead performances. Another element that exudes incredible power throughout Cold War is the music; whether it’s the folk ensemble’s faces beaming with pride as they sing up to a heavenly spotlight, or a slow, jazzy performance of the song at the film’s thematic core (entitled “Two Hearts”), music serves in telling the film’s story as the medium that brought Zula and Wiktor together: when he plays the same set of notes in different keys, she matches them every time with her beautiful voice, and it’s in this moment where the two lovers fall head over heels for each other.
Cold War is a beautiful film, but one that asks a lot from its audience. Its plot forward with subtle nuances and visual storytelling rather than melodrama or exposition. General moviegoers will need to give it their full attention for all of its 88-minute run time, but it’s a favor well worth doing, because it’s a film that captures Zula and Wiktor at a dark point in world history with its 4:3 aspect ratio, while the black-and-white grading evokes feelings of nostalgic beauty. It’s a film that recognizes cinema as an art form, and one that packs a powerful emotional punch whether it’s through the dynamic landscapes of the countries Wiktor and Zula find themselves in, or moments of Zula burying her face in Wiktor’s chest under the streetlights before they are forced to depart. It’s a film that sets love’s ability to conquer all in a war that spans decades, and its power is resonant throughout the unforgettable romance between the two hearts that beat at the center of Cold War.