Cold War is a hypnotic historical drama about a romance that takes place in a
turbulent and troubled historical period. The film is set in Poland in the late
40s and 50s when the Soviet Union asserted their authority over the country.
Cold War has deservedly received almost universal acclaim. At the Cannes Film
Festival, it was nominated for the Palme D’Or, and Pawlikowski won for best
director. The film gained also Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film,
Best Director and Best Cinematography. It is comparatively rare for a foreign
film to get a best director nomination.
The film is filled to the brim with beautiful Polish folk production numbers
which are as good as anything in
A Star is Born.
The director, Paweł Pawlikowski, co-wrote the screenplay with Janusz Głowacki
and Piotr Borkowski. His last film, the oddly gorgeous Ida (which was also in
black and white and under 90 minutes) is probably one of the finest films of the
The troubled couple who spent most of the film consumed with desire are
portrayed by Tomasz Kot (he is currently working on World on Fire and, a BBC
series featuring Helen Hunt) and Joanna Kulig (she was in Innocents which was
also directed by Pawilikowski. Both characters are damaged and extremely flawed
which might partially explain why they are so drawn to each other.
At the start of the film, the musician Wictor (well played by Kot) tours the
countryside gathering folk music (he is like the Polish Alan Lomax) with his
partner, Irena, (who could have been a potential love interest) he puts together
a small folk ensemble to recreate and persevere his native country’s traditions.
He has a pro worker mentality and he wants to share the “music born in the
fields.” It is also implied that he wants to preserve a culture that is in
danger of being diluted, appropriated or wiped out by the occupying Soviets.
In an audition he meets the terrifically talented and attractive Zula (Kulig who
gives an Oscar worthy performance). Her vocal delivery is initially unpolished,
but she has a great voice but he is immediately taken with her artistic spirit.
Soon the two are making googly eyes at each other, jumping into the sack, and
falling in love.
Zula had just gotten out of jail for stabbing her father; as she explains it,
“He mistook me for my mother, and I used a knife to show him the difference.”
The character is loosely based on Pawilikowsk’s mother who ran away at a young
age to become a ballerina.
The film introduces the encroachment of (then) modern Western music in an
interesting way in a sequence uses handheld camera close-ups to heighten the
realism. A neglected, drunk Zula tries to make Victor jealous by throwing
herself at other men on the dance floor while Bill Hailey’s “Rock Around the
Clock” is playing. It is clear that the music helped to push her into a mood of
pure sexual abandon. This sequence is one of the most exhilarating and exciting
ones I have seen all year.
The couple’s relationship encounters another obstacle. A Soviet supervisor who
is as bland and uncreative as most of the educational autocrats I have met in
real life, begins giving minor suggestions and pushes the performers to focus on
doing communist propaganda songs (he initially just asks for a “strong song
about the leader of the world proletariat leader).
Viktor believes that he is in service to “authentic folk art’ and he resists the
proposed changes while Zula is much more eager to just follow the program.
The couple splits up and both of them end up going through periods of profound
unhappiness. Wiktor runs off to France and becomes a less glamorous version of
the sort of bohemian musician that the beat poets idolized. Perhaps he chooses
to play jazz because the Soviet communists considered it degenerate capitalist
junk. Meanwhile Zula stays with the ensemble and goes through the motions
performing bad communist songs while sacrificing her artistic integrity. In a
random touring encounter the couple meet up again and their passion reignites.
The shocking ending is abrupt and unexpected, and I don’t think that the movie
adequately sets us up for it.
But while the film does not quite reach the exquisite heights of Ida, this
gorgeous film is well worth seeking out, and it outclasses most of this years best picture Oscar nominees.