TMN film critic Gordon McPherson gives “Cold War” four out of five hammers and sickles.
Spring is finally here. Hallelujah. There hasn’t been a better time to watch “Cold War,” a grim Polish love story that captivates and frustrates in equal measure.
Set in post-World War II Poland, the film follows an impossible romance between Wiktor and Zula, played by Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig, respectively. Wiktor is an emotionally reserved conductor of a state-sponsored music group, and Zula is a passionate woman with a troubled past who joins his ensemble. Wiktor and Zula soon become infatuated with each other, but alas, totalitarian regimes don’t exactly facilitate happy endings. Wiktor’s ensemble, initially dedicated to honoring Poland’s history through folk songs (often about love), is forced to perform pro-communist and Stalinist propaganda, sacrificing the group’s artistic ambitions to outside influence. As Zula continues to perform, Wiktor feels increasingly conflicted, especially when made aware of dubious intentions by another band organizer, Kaczmarek, played by Borys Szyc. Eventually, Wiktor and Zula plan to flee to the West after a performance in Berlin, but Zula doesn’t show up to the rendezvous, leaving Wiktor to make the crossing by himself. What follows is a sliced-and-diced series of snapshots spanning the 1950s and early ’60s, in which Wiktor and Zula try to rekindle their doomed relationship as both of their lives continue separately in a politically tumultuous world.
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, who loosely based the story on his own parents’ complex relationship, “Cold War” obviously won’t appeal to casual viewers looking for another “Shazam!” or “Avengers 200.” The film feels designed for art house cinemas, appealing to connoisseurs who like their films nuanced, deliberate and atmospheric.
There’s an intoxicating feel to “Cold War” that proves hypnotizing and heartbreaking. Pawlikowski doesn’t pander to viewers looking for traditional love story beats, instead conveying the characters’ emotions through music, cinematography and feelings left unspoken. The film’s episodic nature, presenting individual scenes separated by years, also leaves crucial information unexplained, often leaving viewers to deduce each scene’s context for themselves.
It’s admirable how much “Cold War” trusts viewers’ intelligence, but this unpredictable structure doesn’t provide the emotional heft Pawlikowski intended, at least upon first viewing, as viewers aren’t given enough time to get their bearings. The film’s runtime, just shy of 90 minutes, almost seems too brief for such a layered plot. The fascinating themes of political intervention, ambition, nostalgic longing and time’s uncompromising nature would have been better served by a less experimental storytelling approach. There’s so much to take in at once — visually, aurally and thematically — that a single viewing doesn’t do “Cold War” justice.
Where the plot itself falls slightly short, however, other aspects excel. Kulig gives an incredible performance as Zula, perfectly capturing the character’s full-throttle personality — beautifully illustrated in a wild dance sequence late in the film. Kot also lends Wiktor a mournful, subdued edge that complements his character’s conflicted history. There’s never a moment where their characters’ bond feels inauthentic.
Music, varying in genre, also becomes a character itself. Indeed, the film also becomes a musical in certain sections, creating an atmosphere that reflects the melancholic tone.
The film’s black-and-white photography is also astoundingly beautiful and textured, enhanced by the condensed 4:3 aspect ratio. Pawlikowski utilizes this claustrophobic ratio to focus viewers’ attention and illustrate Wiktor and Zula’s fateful intimacy.
There’s so much to admire about “Cold War” that the questionable storytelling format ultimately doesn’t detract much from the film’s impact. The film is worth seeing for the acting and cinematography alone, even if the characters themselves aren’t given enough depth to truly shine. As a college student without much romantic experience, perhaps others would become more emotionally involved in the proceedings. If you’re a romantic, make up your own mind.
“Cold War,” while perhaps not well-suited for stressed college students, nonetheless depicts a meaningful, wonderfully filmed love story that’s a slap in the face to cliché-ridden chick flicks. And that’s always a blessing, without question.