Cold War (2018) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Scenes from a Cold War romance

“Cold War”, which was recently selected as the Polish entry for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 2019 Academy Awards, is a somber but mesmerizing film about two different people pushing and pulling each other in their sporadic but enduring romantic relationship. As calmly observing the ups and downs of their relationship, the movie engages us via its seemingly plain but impeccable mood and style, and its melancholic elegance is something you will not easily forget after it is over.

The story of the movie begins in Poland, 1949, and we see Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot) and his several colleagues going around rural regions for their folk music research. Although they merely collect various pieces of folk music at first, they later get the full support from the Polish government which is eager to induce national pride via folk music, and Wiktor becomes the co-director of an institution for folk music, which is established in a mansion formerly belonging to some landlord.

With his co-director Irena (Agata Kulesza), Wiktor commences an audition for many young people ready to develop their musical talent further, and that is how he encounters Zuzanna “Zula” Lichoń (Joanna Kulig), an attractive lass who impresses him a lot with not only her beauty but also her attitude. Although Irena shows some reservation because of Zuzanna’s problematic past, Wiktor decides to get Zuzanna accepted into the institution, and she does not disappoint him as showing considerable progress.

When Wiktor approaches closer to her, Zuzanna does not resist while also reminding him that she is not an innocent girl at all. When he asks her about what happened between her and her father some time ago, she gives a very frank answer which is incidentally the most amusing line in the film in my trivial opinion. As they come to spend more time together while driven more by their mutual attraction, she confides to him that she has been reporting on him to an official close to Wiktor because she had no choice from the beginning.

Meanwhile, Wiktor and his colleagues have to cope with a big change demanded by the government. They want to concentrate on folk music as before, but the ministry of culture demands that they should focus more on delivering political messages to their audiences. The public performances of their folk group accordingly become more political as reflected by the big pictures of Lenin and Stalin above the group, and Irena is not so pleased about that as implied from one brief moment showing her from the distance.

In case of Wiktor, he goes along with that disagreeable change, but he has the other plan behind him. When he goes to East Berlin along with the folk music group a few years later, he confides to Zuzanna that he is going to escape to West Berlin, and he suggests that she should go along with him, but she eventually decides not to elope with him because, despite her love toward Wiktor, she is not so sure about whether she can be happy outside the Iron Curtain.

After settling in Paris, Wiktor lives with more freedom than before, but he still finds himself yearning for Zuzanna even while being in a relationship with a female poet. When Zuzanna happens to come to Paris, he anxiously waits for her, and he is happy to see that they remain attracted to each other as before, but, alas, she is soon going to be separated from him. When he later comes to Yugoslavia for seeing her and her performance, they become happy again, but then, not so surprisingly, he is forced to go back to Paris because of his current status as an exile not so welcomed behind the Iron Curtain.

In the end, Zuzanna decides to live with Wiktor in Paris several years later, but, like many lovers, they come to realize that they cannot live together well despite their love. Feeling unhappier than before, Zuzanna argues with Wiktor at one point for a rather trivial matter, and that culminates to a bitter and painful moment which leads to their separation. Wiktor regrets, but Zuzanna already goes back to Poland, and he subsequently comes to make a fateful decision in the name of love.

While hopping from one narrative point to another along with its two main characters, the movie steadily maintains its palpable period atmosphere, and director/co-writer Paweł Pawlikowski and his cinematographer Łukasz Żal, who was previously Oscar-nominated for Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winning film “Ida” (2013), delivers a number of exquisite scenes to be admired and appreciated for their stark but sublime beauty. Shot in black and white film of 1.33:1 ratio, the movie frequently emphasizes its main characters’ oppressed feelings via the empty space placed above them, and several music performances in the film are deftly handled with care and precision. In case of the soundtrack of the movie, it is constantly engaging with various kinds of music ranging from Polish folk music to your average pop music during the 1960s, and I was particularly impressed by the appearance of a certain famous classic piece by Johann Sebastian Bach at the end of the film.

As an arthouse film depending a lot on moods and nuances, “Cold War” is may be too dry and slow for some of you, but it is a superlative work which will be quite rewarding once you give it a chance, and I really admire what is achieved by Pawlikowski, who won the award for Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival early in this year, and his cast and crew. In short, this is another very good film to be added to my annual list, and I urge you not to miss it.

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