Director: Pawel Pawlikowski | Runtime: 1h 29mins | Drama, Music
Set in post World War II Poland, Cold War chronicles the tumultuous relationship of musician and conductor Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) who falls for the young and talented singer Zula (Joanna Kulig).
At a run time of under 90 minutes, it’s surprising how complex a love story Pawlikowski has created in his follow up to the Oscar-winning Ida (2013). It opens with Kot’s Wiktor traversing the cold and harsh Polish countryside, recording rural folk pieces inspiring him to elevate it to more than just local song. He and a few partners set up a system of finding talent in young members of local communities to create a vocal ensemble. Through this, he meets the immensely magnetic Zula, whose rendition of a Russian vocal ballad shows her esoteric personality, catching Wiktor’s eye immediately.
For writer/director Pawlikowski, the story comes from a very personal place, loosely based on his own parents relationship during the time. This intimacy seeps through into every element of the film, as although it’s set during a deeply political time through the collapse of communism and the chaos of the war, it still only explores the relationship of Wiktor and Zula. During the two decades the narrative takes place, they attempt to find their place, together and as individuals, but much like the world around them they are lost and aimless. The death of the big dreams of communism and socialism is reflected their love story; without this direction it’s hard to find consistency, the two uniting and falling apart on many occasions.
It’s remarkable that the piece is not only a gorgeous and striking visual feast, but that those visuals are thematically created as well. Zula is very much out an outsider, presented from the outset, and so is rarely ever in the centre of the frame, moving on the edges around Wiktor’s more conventional needs. As you might be able to see from the above screenshots, many frames have huge space above them which is either empty or filled to the brim with characters and movement, really instilling the two being lost in a world far larger and more chaotic than them.
As made clear, the film is shot in black and white with a aspect ratio of 1.37:1 creating the square format. It’s clear that Pawlikowski is inspired by the films of the 50’s and 60’s, but it also feels like it could have been from the time as well. The square format, monochrome colour and short runtime fit this nicely with the films of the time Cold War is set.
Some may dislike the slightly unusual structure, particularly towards the final act. It becomes more episodic, which would usually not be considered favourable, but again it’s Pawel using all of the craft available to him to feed back into the relationship, as really it’s the only part of the narrative that matters. Why do we need to see the two struggling on their own? It misses these parts to keep the streamlined runtime and showing a director who is excelling in his role.
It’s clear throughout that Pawlikowski did much of the piece in the unique ways presented just simply because it would make a good film, creating a wonderfully intimate piece of cinema. A haunting, romantic and complex relationship drama deeply feeding from it’s Polish heritage, Cold War is a feature that feels timeless, a centre partnership that will passionately resonate with all of it’s audience.