Cold War (aka Zimna Wojna) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Director Pawel Pawlikowski is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors of the decade. His previous film, Ida, entranced me with its desolate beauty of finding yourself in the black-and-white, 4:3 world of a chilly Poland. Cold War serves up as another prime example of how Pawlikowski touches on the deepest sensations of passion, isolation, and faith. And while Ida was very quiet and contemplative of the past, Cold War exists very much in the present of its story with love never fully realized and music that carried the era.
Taking place during post-war Poland of the 1950s, the film follows Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig). Wiktor is part of assembling a state-sponsored folk music group to boost the morale and entertainment appeal of the country. He quickly becomes infatuated when Zula comes in for an audition, regaling him with her heavenly voice. They hit it off well as the ensemble takes off, passionate love made between organization and singing.
Then their relationship takes a harsh turn when the intentions of the singing group shift. If their songs can favor Communist and Stalinist propaganda, they’ll be rewarded with a grander tour. Wiktor doesn’t like this shift but is overruled. As a result, some singers quit and Zula is urged by the ex-performers to act as a spy for those that despise the direction the group and the country are taking. Clearly, this group is becoming toxic to both their politics and their love, leading them to desperate plans of running away together. These plans will not come to be not from outside forces but a greater sense of personal frustration.
The two will meet up years later as different people. Married, struggling, and bitter. The love for each other is still there but how can it go on? After everything that has happened in their country and to them, going with the flow and refusing to fight the current, they remain as the ships that continue to pass each other. Romance always seems hidden, kept warm in the confines of their hearts and locked doors, never to be fully embraced by a world they and others have constructed to disallow what would seem like an obvious relationship meant to be.
Similar to Ida, Pawlikowski’s direction always has a sense of where the characters feel overpowered by their environment, making their personal journeys for trying to understand themselves seem all the more tough and engaging. The harsh shadows and cramp nature of the spaces they occupy, as well as the aspect ratio the film was shot in, always keep the film more personal and moving than being a historical piece. The focus is not on Communism and Stalinism, merely an ingredient of what led to a troubled and tearful romance that always hit a pothole before making that turn towards lasting happiness.
Cold War spins such a tragic romance with amazing cinematography that takes in the dark chill seeping in from every spacious nightclub, stuffy bedroom, small train, and lonely alley. There’s a brilliance in the tease of this love that wasn’t quite meant to be, where the climax takes a bittersweet turn towards what the couple feel is their only escape. Even with some flashy song-and-dance numbers, including one performance by Zula in a very happening club, there’s always a quiet to the presentation, abundant with whispers of a love that Wiktor and Zula fear is a taboo in their own sense of protection. And it’s that slight sensation within their many chance encounters that gives the film such a thrill for showcasing how internal and external forces push us away, even when we want to be close.