Reel Critic: ‘Cold War’


Allow me to begin talking about “Cold War”, a 2018 Polish film shown as part of the Hirschfield International Film Series, by addressing its final sentiment: “Let’s go to the other side, the view will be better over there.”

For the film’s brief hour and 28 minutes, the two leads, one a pianist and composer and the other a singer with a dark past, try over and over again, heartbreakingly, to find something better in the next chapter of their lives and just nearly fail each time. However, it’s this perpetual discontentment and continuous heartache that keeps audiences torturously invested and part of what has made “Cold War” a very promising contender for three Oscars. 

Beginning in 1950s Soviet Poland and continuing over 20 years and four countries, director Pawel Pawlikowski’s black and white masterpiece begins with Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and his collegue Irena (Agata Kulesza) traveling the Polish countryside, recording the music of rural communities. They use these recordings as the foundation for a performance troupe comprised of singer and dancers from the same rural communities. One of the girls to audition, Zula (Joanna Kulig), catches Wiktor’s eye, and she makes it into the group even after a good-but-not-great performance and the realization to Wiktor that she murdered her father and is on probation.

Over the next few years, Wiktor and Zula fall in love against the backdrop of the group’s international success, although their relationship is haunted by the prying eyes of Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), the Soviet emissary tasked with observing the project and to whom Zula reports private information about Wiktor. The troupe travels to Paris for a performance and the lovers make a plan to defect to France permanently, but Wiktor is left alone in an alleyway while Zula returns to Poland.

For decades, the pair interacts fleetingly: one night in Paris, a few moments of eye contact in Yugoslavia, a conversation in a heavily-guarded checkpoint at the Polish border. Their lives undergo drastic changes — relationships, marriages, imprisonment, careers, children — but the audience only sees this broad span of time through their moments together and through, as the film eventually notes, the search for a better ‘view’ just slightly ahead.

The strength of the film is certainly, as myself and The Academy’s nominations both noted, in its cinematography. Pawlikowski’s directing makes creative and haunting use of empty space and empty scenes that make the rather short film not feel remotely crowded. He also makes stunning use of mirrors, in shots that had audience members faintly gasping. The black and white had both a haunting quality, which was not out of place in the film, but also gave it a simplicity that allowed the expressions of its actors and subtleties of emotion take the forefront in the necessary scenes.

For all that I enjoyed of the film, I was not initially convinced. The initial depictions of Zula and Wiktor’s relationship felt fragmented and deceiving. For the first 30 minutes of the film, we see what feels like an unimportant part of their relationship, and although the film certainly leans away from being predominantly romantic, it perhaps leans too far — so far that it was difficult to care or appreciate the future significance of Wiktor and Zula’s time-and-boundary-crossing romance.

However, the middle of the films offers a handle on their relationship,  and it becomes hard to look away as the ill-fated lovers struggle and find comfort within the most stunning cinematographic shots of 2018.