Cold War has an epic sweep that’s a lyrical gem, almost visually imagistic, and that’s very close to a masterpiece.
“Time doesn’t matter when you’re in love,” Juliette tells her rival, of sorts, a mousy blonde named Zuzanna, who is a good decade younger than her and it just so happens has been sleeping with her husband on and off for years. The new war-time tempestuous love(torn) story spans multiple years, even decades, and despite Cold War’s brief running time, the chemistry between its leads never loses its spark. In fact, it never quite goes out. Pawel Pawlikowski’s film, however, has so much more on its mind than its passionate love story, depicting wartime politics turning art into propaganda as a backdrop to its romance that is always set to ignite against its frozen landscape and its ever-changing political climate.
Cold War begins in 1950’s Poland, during a long, hard and cold winter. Zuzanna or “Zula” (Joanna Kulig) as she is called, is a peasant girl that auditions to sing in a musical being cast by Wiktor (Bogowie’s Tomasz Kot) and Irene (Ida’s Agata Kulesza) during the cold war and the impending iron curtain closing in. Most of the men and women auditioning, practically kids really, are looking for a way out, and Zula is plucked from obscurity by Wiktor who tells Agata that she has a certain “spirit” (note to future actors or actresses: don’t fall for that line on the casting couch) that he thinks will stand out. Soon Zula is being taught how to sing, dance, and begins her career just as Wiktor, Agata, and Lech (Spoor’s Borys Szyc) have a meeting with a Soviet Union official who wants them to work certain propaganda themes into their work, all while Zula and Wiktor start a torrid affair and plan on escaping together to Paris.
Cold War has a well-designed story arc and several character types that move the narrative along and that are direct reflections on issues going today that, by the end of the film, come together such that you can’t have one without the other. You have the survivor, Zula, who attaches herself to the nearest life raft to escape war-time atrocities. Wiktor is an artist, the dreamer, who tells the truth to power, and like any artist worth their salt, takes on impeding political leaders despite the reputation he is building that will limit his future. Lech is the politician; he sees the future, the impending doom of Stalin’s influence, and aligns himself with political leaders so he can make his money, no matter who he hurts, steps over, and removes from the picture to get it. Can you imagine a time where political leaders take away and attack the rights of a certain sect of citizens who don’t share your values or beliefs, while artists or journalists are under attack and their voices stifled, and/or when big-business aligns with politicians that have a direct reflection on the art or entertainment we consume? Sound familiar?
Despite Pawlikowski’s cold, grim, black and white outlook, he always manages to find small moments of hope that make them even more significant. He has been a master of filming shots that integrate light, shadows, and motions that makes Cold War come alive with emotional resonance and you come away watching moments that have great quality of depth (another example of this would be his powerful Ida, along with Cold War; I can see one more black and white film that explores his family’s roots to complete a trilogy) that caused several scenes to stick with me since watching the film. For instance, Zula jumping in a river and floating downstream singing has become one of my favorite scenes in a black and white film since the suit comes alive in The Artist. Another has to do with going to a bar called the “eclipse” and a main player running around unhinged, being passed on to multiple dance partners, as if there is no tomorrow. Lastly, the film’s final scene completely floors you emotionally, is quite profound, and has a small moment of movement the compliments it perfectly. His film is shot with precise, clear images, where the scenes that involve his characters’ movements are quite controlled but lyrical, that feel as if they are spinning uncontrollably off its axis that brim with moments that are practically bursting with energy that make life worth living during a time that was always on the precipice of ending completely. It’s a deeply moving work that you can’t help but get swept up in and have your head consumed by.
A common comparison of Cold War may be The English Patient, based on its war-themed timeline and Eros relationship between its leads. Pawlikowski’s film though is a sparse 89-minutes compared to Patient’s 162, but that doesn’t make it any less epic in scope or consuming in nature. It’s a deeply effective film that transcends the romantic drama into an honest-to-god piece of art, set during a time of great social upheaval, and his script was written during an actual modern time of great change, political turmoil, and significance that is now being fought through social media. Pawlikowski leaves the cliched wartime romance at the door, strips away the melodrama, and makes every interaction between Zula and Wiktor carry greater weight than other films of the genre. His film has an epic sweep that’s a lyrical gem, visually imagistic in nature, and that is very close to a masterpiece.
M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.