Cold War is one of the best movies about romance that I’ve ever seen- more so than dealing with either of the key players in the couple, this is a film that reality and justification of a life long connection throughout a tumultuous history. Drawing from the true masters of the craft (with a noted influence of Casablanca and the works of Shakerspeare), director Pawel Pawlikowski delivers a series of vignettes that capture a lifetime, and Pawlikowski’s ending tribute to his parents in the credits suggests this couldn’t be anything other than personal. As for the black and white, I’d say few color films are as vivid or striking, and few epics capture the scope and emotion that Pawlikowski does in a mere 88 minutes.
Set across a fifteen year span that begins in the late 1940s, Cold War follows Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot), a composer who falls deeply in love with Zula Lichon, a peasant girl who becomes a singer in a local theater group. As Poland become thrust under communist rule and the theater group is wrapped into a propaganda machine, Wiktor and Zula are set on intersecting paths as they struggle for creative freedom and a life together in the wake of political turmoil in Europe.
The steady, often silent Wiktor and the bubbly, expressive Zula make for an instantly iconic screen duo; perhaps if the script focused on them more individually it would feel more gimmicky, but we’re enraptured in their chemistry early on and aren’t able to let go. Telling a story over fifteen years is challenging, and instead of long moments of longing, we’re drawn into the events that separate them and bring them back together. It’s fleeting moments of happiness and conflict, and when the film risks being too simple it challenges the perception of what this relationship really could be- highlighted by a pitch perfect ending.
To say the film is gorgeous is an understatement; the use of black and white does more than capture the old fashioned feel, giving the look a rich visual texture that is even more evident when matched with the creative and often untraditional framing. Movement is rare, but even with their starkly different personalities, Wiktor and Zula are able to capture the attention of a frame, even if they’re peeking in the corner. The use of light and staging is the type that will stay with viewers for quite some time; we’re so easily drawn into this world, yet we’re also very much intended to just observe it- much like our leads.
The relatively short runtime leaves no fluff or extraneous details, and each location and action is only here as a backdrop to the tumultuous relationship. The transitions between years are deliberately sharp, and while the film often serves as a representation of the horrors of communism, its ultimately about the passage of time, in all its beauty and ugliness. There’s not a frame out of place here or a wasted moment, so for those willing to indulge (and read- this is subtitled from Poland!), its a masterpiece of the medium. Grade: A+