— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
“Two hearts, four eyes, oy oy oy. / Crying all day and all night, oy oy oy.”
Potential spoilers below
During and around 2014, the cinema world fixed its eyes on Poland when writer-director Paweł Pawlikowski’s post-World War II drama Ida became the first Polish feature to win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. The quiet tale of a timid Catholic nun who may have been born Jewish, Ida injected a traditionally quaint yet cinematically captivating pulse into arthouses and world cinema in general, thanks in large part to its Oscar-nominated black-and-white cinematography. Five years on, Pawlikowski and returning d.p. Lukasz Żal apply the visual stamp of Ida to Cold War (Polski: Zimna Wojna), an episodic romantic drama set on either side of the Berlin Wall between 1949 and 1962 and loosely inspired by Pawlikowski’s own parents. Like Ida, Cold War contains its story within 90 minutes, yet the ample room in each scene for interpretation more than compensates for any screenwriting conciseness.
Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot) conducts the music for a Polish folk song and dance troupe, newly established following the end of World War II. Wiktor takes an immediate liking to Zuzanna “Zula” Lichoń (Joanna Kulig), a young Polish woman with a beautiful voice and a questionable past. With Lech Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) installed by the Communist Soviet regime as supervisor, the auditioned and rehearsed folk troupe begins their tour, which soon becomes part of a restrictive and grueling propaganda machine. Frustrated, Wiktor plans to defect to the West with Zula after their performance in Berlin. However, the night Wiktor prepares to cross, Zula fails to show up. A few years later, Wiktor works as a jazz pianist at a Paris nightclub—a far cry from the state-sponsored conducting job he once had—when Zula re-enters his life. Will this romance between a branded traitor and a hopeless artistic slave survive?
Oy, oy, oy…
I suspect that, for most audiences, arthouse and foreign movies are acquired tastes. Combined, and viewers likely pass over them at once. That is why I gravitate towards such features with runtimes less than 100 minutes. Pawlikowski’s Ida, with its road trip and emerging womanhood elements, managed to feel slow in the proper moments without also padding its 82-minute runtime.
At first, Cold War seems less successful than Ida. Cold War is a romance, set over a decade in a specific historical period that also involves, in equal parts, the character study of artists in both their public and private lives as well as the titular socio-political context. Lacking an expected sprinkle of melodrama, the romance can feel muted and unworthy of audience investment. The short runtime, moreover, can make the path from auditioning to rehearsal to performance come off as unexciting and condensed.
Yet thanks to Pawlikowski’s succinct narrative structure (co-written with Piotr Borkowski and Janusz Głowacki), Cold War maintains a sturdy atmosphere of intimacy across a decade and then some. As with his work with Ryszard Lenczewski on Ida, Lukasz Żal’s stark yet mesmerizing monochrome cinematography often keeps its subjects small and low in the frame, reminding filmgoers that these characters merely inhabit a small part of a larger socio-political backdrop. In a way, that backdrop minimizes, even crushes, the romance at hand—an appearance which harmonizes well with the pessimistic trajectory of Wiktor and Zula’s obsessive relationship. Beyond that, the cinematography is just plain gorgeous, such as when Wiktor, Lech Kaczmarek, and fellow troupe coordinator Irena Bielecka (Agata Kulesza) stand against a floor-to-ceiling mirror at a post-performance reception, making it look like they are standing in the middle of the crowd. The trio share a brief conversation, before Pawlikowski brilliantly reveals that Wiktor and Zula were staring at each other across the hall throughout the entire shot.
Cold War is highbrow cinema at its most refined and accessible. This segment of cinema often succeeds in similar respects like the best b-movies: Take simple or nonsensical premises and execute them with utmost style, either for sheer entertainment or for drawing out greater meaning from specific plot points. The more the stylized executions serve their stories without time-consuming filler, the better and longer-lasting the movies tend to become. With Cold War, showing primarily the key moments in Wiktor and Zula’s destructive bond rewards moviegoers with gorgeous camerawork and brief looks and lines of dialogue that speak volumes. Moreover, the script liberates audiences to fill in the gaps using their own imaginations and presses them to wonder at how such an era affected so many for nearly all of the twentieth century’s second half. Few things warm my heart more than when artists like Paweł Pawlikowski and the cast and crew of Cold War accomplish so much with what seems like so little.
Oy, oy, oy…
And with that, I conclude my reviews for individual 2018 releases. The next three weeks will see the release of my three end-of-year lists, not to mention my picks for the 91st Academy Awards (read last year’s articles here). First up…my Top 10 Films of 2018. See you all then!
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.