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Review: Cold War

February 24, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Pawel Pawlikowski’s tragic post-World War II romance Cold War is a deeply personal film for the Oscar-nominated Polish director, as the story is based on the European love affair between his own parents.

The film unfolds over fifteen years, and charts the on-again, off-again love affair between Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig). Wiktor is a musical director, who is travelling through the decimated countryside of Poland in 1949, recording local peasants as they sing traditional Polish folk songs, in hopes of keeping the melodies alive for future generations.

He is hired by the state to assemble a group of singers to perform these old mountain tunes, and this is where he meets Zula. She is a young singer with a troubled past and a captivating voice, who auditions for him and immediately catches his eye. As the group goes on tour across Europe, their performances start being used for propagandistic purposes, with the forces of communism spreading across the continent. The two lovers inevitably get separated, but keep encountering each other over the years, before rekindling their affair on the streets of Paris.

It’s understandable why Cold War received a trio of Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography. Framed in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, and presented in striking black and white, Cold War has a stark beauty to it that makes it almost hypnotic to watch. The film is filled with masterfully composed images courtesy of cinematographer Lukasz Zal, who also collaborated with Pawlikowski on his Oscar-winning 2014 film Ida. The music is exceptional, mixing traditional folk music with jazz pieces and other contemporary songs from the era to help tell its story.

The film unfolds through a series of moments and chance encounters between Wiktor and Zula, with the narrative often jumping ahead several years between their meetings. The paired down screenplay by Pawlikowski, Janusz Glowacki and Piotr Korkowski leaves out a lot of context as to what was happening around the events of the film, letting the audience fill in the blanks. As such, parts of the narrative feel left out, giving a sense of detachment to much of the film’s brief 89 minute running time that leaves our two main characters feeling just out of reach in terms of fully knowing them.

But I have a feeling this approach was deliberate. The narrative feels episodic and the characters remain somewhat elusive, but there is also a rhythm to Cold War, like a collection of separate musical pieces coming together that are all distinct but involving in their own ways. The beautifully photographed film does an exquisite job of capturing the feeling of its time and place through a mix of brilliant imagery and timeless music, with a classic romantic story that is underscored by a deep sense of sorrow as it builds towards its tragic ending, culminating in a haunting and achingly sad final scene.

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