COLD WAR

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Pawel Pawilowski

Stars: Tomas Kot, Joanna Kulik, Agata Kulesza, Borys Szyc, Jeanne Balibar, Cedric Kahn.

Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig in Zimna wojna (2018)This melancholy romantic drama about a pair of star-crossed lovers kept apart in the divided Europe after WWII has been largely inspired by the experiences of Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawilowski’s own parents. Cold War spans some fifteen years and tells of the troubled romance between a pair of musicians. The film was a big winner at Cannes and is Poland’s official entry into the Foreign Language category for the Oscars.

Cold War opens in Poland in 1949 when the communist government attempted to connect with its rural citizens by recording and preserving the country’s traditional folk music thus hoping to rekindle national pride in their music and culture. One of the travelling musicians is pianist Wiktor (Tomas Kot). When he meets sultry but talented singer Zula (Joanna Kulik, who appeared in Pawilowski’s previous film Ida) it is the beginning of a beautiful romance.

Wiktor and Zula begin a passionate romance, and she becomes part of his musical ensemble. While in Berlin on a concert tour, Wiktor decides to escape to the west and its freedoms. Unfortunately, Zula is uncretian and when she hesitates she is left behind and remains trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Wiktor establishes himself in Paris, where he plays piano with a group and even begins to dabble in writing film scores. Over the course of a couple of decades the pair cross paths throughout a divided Europe.

The film is something of a personal story for Pawilowski who handles the material with a sense of compassion and sensitivity. But he doesn’t always join the dots, leaving audiences to make the connections between characters and events. Editor Jarislaw Kaminski works with abrupt jump cuts. One scene ends abruptly, the screen fades to black briefly, and then opens in a different time frame and a different location. Pawilowski has said that he deliberately left out details, preferring to let the audience fill in the gaps. He employs a minimalist approach to the material, and the film runs for a brisk and economical 88 minutes. But while is a political subtext to the film the deliberately disjointed and episodic structure doesn’t allow for a lot of depth or emotional attachment.

Drawing inspiration from the Polish cinema of the period the film has been shot in luminous black and white by cinematographer Lukasz Zal, who previously shot the director’s Ida in black and white, which accentuates the drab and bleak nature of post war Poland. It also gives a noir-like look and feel to those scenes set in smoky bars in Paris and the snow-covered streets of Berlin. He has also used the same boxy ratio he employed for Ida.

The film has universal appeal though as it explores themes of personal freedom, culture, relationships, sacrifice, love, the damage caused by the war and its aftermath, and the complexities of post-WWII Europe. Music is an integral part of the narrative, and the soundtrack ranges from traditional Polish folk tunes through to jazz and even embraces rock n roll with a buoyant and upbeat rendition of the classic Rock Around The Clock. Some of the musical numbers are superbly choreographed by Pawilowski.

The title has a nice double meaning – it refers to that period of tensions between eastern Europe and western Europe known as “the Cold War”, but it also refers to the fragile relationship between the artistic community of Poland and the repressive bureaucracy that stifled individual freedom. Many artists desperately wanted to escape from Poland to find freedom in the west.

This is a breakout performance from Kulik, who apparently modelled her performance as the ambitious and feisty Zula on Hollywood actress Lauren Bacall. Kot brings passion and a hint of cynicism to his role as the handsome and charismatic musician. Jeanne Balibar and celebrated French filmmaker Cedric Kahn appear in brief cameos as a French poet and a film director respectively, while Agata Kulesza (who appeared in Ida) has a significant role as Wiktor’s producer.

This poetic ode to a doomed love and the chilly politics of the era will appeal to lovers of art house cinema.

★★★

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