Sweeping romantic epics usually do not run less than 90 minutes and are typically not filmed in black and white, but Oscar-winning Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski’s latest film, the elegiac Cold War is just that. Loosely based on the romantic story of his own parents, the film condenses more than a decade of time into 85 minutes. The love story of Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is a heartbreaking exercise in tragic filmmaking by a director not worried about challenging his audience.
Beginning in the ruins of post-war Poland, with the growing Cold War as a backdrop, Zula and Wiktor meet while Wiktor is putting together a production of folk singers to show off Polish culture. The successful troupe is turned into a communist propaganda machine, leaving the couple to dream of breaking free to the West. When they finally do, they learn nothing can be perfect. Their timing is always off, and the winds of political change make finding the perfect life impossible.
Cold War’s short running time means every second and every shot cannot be wasted. With no fat, Pawilkowski’s script (co-written by Piotr Borkowski and the late Janusz Głowacki) focuses squarely on making the two lead characters as well-rounded, giving equal weight to Zula and Wiktor. There might be some dream girl cliché in the DNA of Zula, but she is a melancholic character who gives in to no one. She does not exist purely to please Wiktor, and is far more headstrong than loosely-written women on the screen.
Wiktor and Zula are connected by a mutual feeling of being lost souls, artists left without a country in the post-World War II Eastern European landscape who have to reject their dreams to survive. Over time, both of them change from the perfect fantasies they share of each other. He becomes a more jaded, disconnected pianist, playing aimless jazz at Paris clubs. She turns into a woman desperate for connections and love, finding it in failed relationships littered throughout Europe. Despite these changes over a matter of decades, their love for each other never dies, lighting up the screen with a surprisingly sexy look for a film set among ruins.
One could find fault in the script’s frequent time jumps that leave major actions hidden inside ellipses, but Cold War is not about dramatic prison rescues or chases. Suddenly we’re in a Paris nightclub with euphoric dancing by Zula to “Rock Around the Clock,” then later we’re in a prison camp. It is about what people do in the situations they find themselves in, and how they find ways to keep a love alive.
Pawlikowski is a throwback filmmaker, as Cold War has more in common with the films made at the time the movie is set during than movies made today. He reunited with Ida cinematographer Łukasz Żal, once again shooting in black and white and in the square Academy ratio. Pawlikowski and Żal have proven to be masters of that format though, understanding how the square is the best way to present close-ups and dramatic compositions you cannot get when a screen is as wide as possible.
It also helps that he found two actors perfectly suited for their roles. Kulig is simply electric as Zula, bringing an exuberance to the role and an authenticity no glamorous Hollywood star could. Tomasz Kot’s defiant performance only helps punctuate the mismatched personalities between the two characters.
Pawlikowski directs Cold War as if he had something to prove, as if his entire career as a filmmaker depends on him delivering this story as best he can. The pressure of being a near-perfect film can be a burden, but Cold War rises to the challenge. It might even be the best film about the Cold War ever made, showing the true cost of a war fought on the battlefield of everyday life.
Cold War was nominated for three Oscars: Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography and – most surprisingly – Best Director. It is being shown at select theaters (I saw it at Nashville’s Belcourt Theater) and will be available to stream on Amazon at a later date.