Poland, 1849. Wiktor is a music conductor working on a show featuring classic Polish folk songs. While watching auditions, he sees Zula. She is a pretty good singer, nothing special. He cannot take his eyes off of her. Thus begins a passionate and tumultuous romance spanning several decades and countries as they try to find a way to be together despite the political turmoil occurring around them.
This is the plot of director/cowriter Pawel Pawlikowski’s black and white Polish drama, Cold War, a beautifully filmed story about two people who struggle to belong in the same place at the same time. It is slowly paced, with only the necessary amount of dialogue. There is a lot of drama in the character’s lives, though many of the bigger moments happen off screen. The movie is very focused on their love and the misfortune it finds. This is a gorgeous, heartbreaking, production that is a triumph of direction and camerawork.
The story is tremendously low-key. It is quite short for a feature (81 minutes without the end credits). Yet it includes everything it needs to. The romance between Wiktor and Zula is what Cold War is about. By the end, I felt like I understood it as well as possible. It skips forward multiple times as it moves through their two decade romance, but is never confusing. The screenplay (co-written by Pawlikowski and Janusz Glowacki) is clear and concise with no wasted scenes.
The lead characters may have seemed underdeveloped on the page, since their journey is so visual. Thankfully, the filmmakers cast actors who are able to say so much without saying anything. Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig are excellent at suggesting what they are suffering through. What they look like is far more important than what they do. Wiktor is an artist growing dissatisfied with his country as it changes post-WWII, even as he is working on a review celebrating its history. Kot makes that clear before it becomes a major plot point. Zula is a clever, passionate, woman, looking for a way out of her life. Kulig is mesmerizing. You can practically see her thinking about how to help Wiktor. Or herself. The actors are so good at hinting at emotions their characters are trying to hide, for fear their world will judge them harshly for it.
The story is enhanced by the actors and the actors have been enhanced by the camera movement. The editing is completely unobtrusive, letting the camera make its points. It allows viewers to see Wiktor and Zula, to experience things the same way they do. To see them how they see each other. There are several lengthy takes that just watch as the protagonists listen, observe or subtly react. There is one scene where Zula walks away from Wiktor in a crowded bar and starts dancing. The camera follows her the entire time, from her seat, all the way across the room. It is such a perfect expression of how she feels in that moment and Pawlikowski allows Kulig to do the work. The whole movie is like that. Movement, or lack thereof, tells us what the characters cannot.
A description of Cold War features words/phrases that seem to turn off mainstream American filmgoers: foreign, subtitles, black and white, little dialogue, international politics, period piece, heartbreaking, etc. That is understandable, if unfortunate. This is a wonderfully made film (it has been nominated for three Oscars: Best Foreign Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography for the amazing work by Lukasz Zal). While it has less action than five minutes of a lot of other movies, I could not look away from it. It is smart, sad and powerful. This is an excellent film.
4¾ out of 5
Tomasz Kot as Wiktor
Joanna Kulig as Zula
Borys Szyc as Kaczmarek
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
Screenplay by Pawel Pawlikowski and Janusz Glowacki