Cold War: Love in the time of communism
Filmmaker Pawel Pawilowski’s evocative romantic drama Cold War (three stars) earned unsurprising Academy Award nominations for Best Foreign Language Film and Lukasz Zal’s superb cinematography, and a surprise one for Pawilowski as Best Director – thereby likely edging Bradley Cooper (for A Star is Born) out of the race.
First and foremost, Cold War (originally titled Zimna wojna) is the director’s film. Pawilowski is unquestionably the star of the show. Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig are the nominal leads and give effective performances, but it almost wouldn’t have mattered who played their roles; they are essentially figures in a landscape – Pawilowski’s landscape – one adorned by aural and visual glory. The camera loves their faces, but it could also be said that Zal’s camera loves everything in Cold War, given the intricate (and indulgent) visuals.
That said, the film is a feast for the eyes and ears. The musical selection is spectacular, and the aforementioned visuals never cease to impress.
The story takes place in post-World War II Poland, where both the landscape and the populace still bear its physical and emotional scars, and things haven’t improved much – if at all – under Communist domination. Hope is a thing of the past, and the future seems no brighter. Happiness and joy are fleeting concepts, at best.
Zula (Kulig) and Wiktor (Kot) are brought together when he chooses her – as a member of a state-sanctioned musical troupe devoted to performing traditional folk music. He is the conductor and creator; she is the creation who will become the troupe’s star singer.
The success of the troupe arouses the interest of the government, which wants them to use their talent and popularity to spread Communist propaganda to the masses. This displeases Irena (Agata Kulesza), the artistic director and a traditionalist at heart, but is consented to by general manager Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc). Needless to say, Irena goes her own way while Kaczmarek rides the wave to further acclaim. He knows the score.
The situation is further complicated when Zula and Wiktor embark on a passionate, clandestine romance that would seem more consuming were the characters allowed to emerge more fully. He wants them to defect and makes plans to that effect. He flees, she stays – and the narrative jumps forward a few years when they are reunited in Paris.
The lovers are drawn together by their love for culture and music, yet they’re never happy – whether together or apart. This may be the only love story in recent memory in which the principals never seem to smile. They’re miserable at the outset, miserable during separations, and miserable still during reunions. Almost by default, the most likable character is Szyc’s Kaczmarek, who may be a complacent – and complicit – opportunist, but doesn’t wallow in self-pity.
Despite the despair and gloom, of which there is plenty, it’s impossible to overlook or downplay the sheer artistry of the endeavor. The story is reportedly based on Pawilowski’s own parents, and the filmmaker couldn’t have fashioned a more evocative and stylish account of a star-crossed romance. Yet, deep down, Cold War is a film more defined by mood and music, less than by the main characters’ emotions or motivations. It’s not a film to warm up to, but it’s an easy one to admire.
Nevertheless, for all his directorial indulgence, Pawilowski keeps the narrative moving at a steady clip. The film runs barely 90 minutes and that’s just fine. (In Polish with English subtitles)
See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2019, Mark Burger.
Cold War opens Friday at a/perture cinemas, 311 W. Fourth St., Winston-Salem