Cold War




A longer review for one of the most interesting films of the year.

Cold War  

Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig


The Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski is here both the director and co-author of the screenplay with two others and I can say with confidence that in the utterly magnificent first half of Cold War he finds himself fully as an artist. This has not come out of the blue. He gained notice first as a Pole making films in England and works such as Last Resort (2000) and My Summer of Love (2004) were much admired. Yet the major step upward in his career came with his decision to make the 2013 film Ida a work that found him taking on a quintessentially Polish piece rooted in his own country and shot there with a cast of Polish players speaking their own language. This homecoming yielded Pawlikowski’s most impressive work up to that time and it suggested that he was possessed of a talent that had its deepest potential when making use of his Polish inheritance. Cold War confirms this, being once again a film deeply expressive of his nationality, using some of the same cast and crew and again embracing the need to be filmed in the Polish language with subtitles.


If Cold War shows a development beyond even what was achieved in Ida, it is because on a technical level the first half of this new film indicates that Pawlikowski has found what is absolutely his own voice. From the mid-fifties onwards we knew what an Ingmar Bergman film was like and now, with equal depth and certainty, this piece reveals what is quintessentially Pawlikowskian. It involves short scenes that may fade to black, sharp editing that eliminates non-essentials to give the film pace and (for now at least) the use of black and white photography to bring out a sense of history and to feature in an almost documentary way faces that are unmistakably Polish. But in defining the technique adopted, we are also describing the soil from which the emotional power of the film grows.


Cold War starts in Poland in 1949 and immerses us in Polish culture from its very first shot: we hear folk music being played and witness Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a pianist and composer, and Irena (Agata Kulesza), a musicologist, recording these performers and looking for suitable people to take the stage in a troupe offering ethnic song and dance. With them is Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) keeping a bureaucratic eye on things. At this early stage, all three characters carry equal weight but then when the time for auditions comes up Wiktor is bowled over by a singer with a captivating personality. This is Zula played by Joanna Kulig who had a subsidiary role in Ida but is absolutely central here. Before long Zula and Wiktor become lovers and Cold War turns out to be the story of their relationship over a period of fifteen years during which time the narrative takes in Berlin, Paris and Yugoslavia before eventually returning to Poland.


The casting of this film is wonderfully apt and Joanna Kulig’s ability to light up the screen rivets us. Initially Zula’s passion for Wiktor develops as a story of two lovers whose situation is largely controlled by the fact that they are living in an authoritarian state. Cold War keeps jumping forward in time with its first episodes taking place in 1949, 1951 and 1952 respectively. But, if this creates gaps in the narrative, the audience can readily fill them in. It is enough to know that the authorities put the troupe under pressure to perform songs in praise of Stalin and for the closeness of the couple to be confirmed by the fact that Zula decides to be honest and to admit to her lover that her own position in the stage company is conditional on her reporting on Wiktor to Kaczmarek. This may not be the only sign of the lengths to which she will go in order to promote herself as a singer thus making her career her priority but, with minimal footage given to sex scenes, Cold War totally persuades us of the strength of feeling shared by her and Wiktor. During an authorised visit by the company to East Berlin it leads to Wiktor suggesting that they should cross to the West and seek to build a new life there together and it is absolutely convincing that he should do so. We then wait to see if this will happen.


Thereafter the film moves on by jumping first to 1954 and then bit by bit to 1964. It would be wrong to give away too much about how the story develops but it illustrates how the bond between these two continues to assert itself even if life often takes them in different directions. In this part of the film Tomasz Kot comes into his own portraying wonderfully well how Wiktor, finding rather less success in the West than he had hoped for, suffers disappointment and disillusion (the film may confirm all the drawbacks of life in Poland in this period but its portrait of Paris life in the 1950s is far from uncritical).


The film’s continued use of time jumps in its second half means that the gaps in the narrative continue to be felt. However, there is now a big difference. When Zula and Wiktor appear to be at the mercy of events, the gaps provide no problem, but more needs to be explained when it is their own behaviour that pulls them apart as well as drawing them together again and that on more than one occasion. Too often the screenplay leaves it to the viewer to fill in the gaps without enough clarification to help them in this. Thus scenes in Paris feature an influential man (Cédric Kahn) who can help Zula to get a record made and released, but we are left asking key questions about what exactly is involved here on the part of both Wiktor and Zula. Unclear in another way is the significance of religion in that a ruined church seen early on reappears as a location near the film’s close.


Given these aspects I was less taken by the film’s second half including its last line of dialogue which seems set up to be just that but yet emerges with a tone that leaves us uncertain as to its real meaning. Apparently I am not entirely alone in having certain reservations about the later stages of this film, but many do not share these doubts and in any case the first half of Cold War is so exceptional that the film cries out to be seen while leaving it to individual viewers to debate afterwards what they feel about it as a whole.


Original title: Zimna wojna.




Cast: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cédric Kahn, Jeanne Balibar.


Dir and Image Pawel Pawlikowski, Pro Tanya Seghatchian and Ewa Puszczynska, Screenplay Pawel Pawlikowski and Janusz Glowacki with Piotr Borkowski, from a story by Pawel Pawlikowski, Ph Lukasz Zal, Pro Des Katarzyna Sobanska and Marcel Slawinski, Ed Jaroslaw Kaminski, Costumes Aleksandra Staszko.


Opus Film/Apocalypso Pictures/MK Productions/Polish Film Institute/MK2 Films/Film4/BFI/Protagonist Pictures-Curzon Artificial Eye.
88 mins. Poland/UK/France/India. 2018. Rel: 31 August 2018. Cert. 15.