For the longest time, I considered myself specifically to be a non-visual film critic. My writing was focused almost entirely on story, character and performance, in part because I never went to school to understand the technical and artistic merits and nuances of cinematography, editing, shot construction and other visual aspects of the medium. But one movie changed all of that for me. Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida from 2014 was a film that looked so different, shot in 4:3 in black and white with a tendency to focus on tall frames with its characters in the lower third, dwarfed by imposing architecture, that I immediately noticed. This was different. This was special. Ida was my fourth favorite film of 2014, high praise for a year that included the likes of Boyhood and Selma and Snowpiercer. And much of that love came from the way Pawlikowksi made it look like nothing I had ever seen (or at least ever recognized in such a way). I was in love. I needed more Pawlikowski in my life.
Well, it took him long enough, but after four long years (five if you consider Ida initially made its festival debut in 2013), he’s back with a new film, Cold War. This time, he turns the clock back about ten years or so, though remaining set in volatile post-war Poland. The focus is on Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a musician and conductor for a local song and dance troupe that specializes in traditional folk performances. While holding auditions, he meets Zula (Joanna Kulig), a woman with some raw talent and a passion for life. Wiktor is instantly smitten, and seeks to make her the star of the company. It works, but pressure to change the content of their performances to praise Josef Stalin and Poland’s Soviet overlords leads him to hatch a plan to escape to the West with Zula in tow. When the time comes, she’s nowhere to be found, and he departs for Paris. What follows is a tumultuous decade that sees Wiktor and Zula pursue each other across the European east/west divide, falling into and out of love, two people who seem terrible for each other but are doomed to be in love, even if they bring each other down.
It’s safe to say that Cold War is about as bleak as the wintery and frozen landscape in which out combative lovers reside. Considering Ida was a film about a young woman on the path to becoming a nun discovering her family’s hidden Jewish faith and fate intertwined with the Holocaust, it’s rather impressive that Pawlikowski’s follow up might actually be more of a bummer. It’s always difficult to watch people make the same mistakes over and over again, and especially wrenching when love is the inciting act. We don’t get to choose the people we fall in love with, and Pawlikowski’s script (written with the recently deceased Janusz Glowacki) takes advantage of that fact to show how blind it makes us, as well as how beautiful it can be in even the most dire of circumstances. There is tremendous romance to be found here, even if it often ends in pain time and again, but in those fleeting moments that Wiktor and Zula find themselves in each other’s arms and united, it all makes sense.
Like Ida, Pawlikowski returns to the boxy, 4:3 aspect ratio shot in stately black and white, though there is far more movement and dynamism in the cinematography here. There are musical performances throughout the film, and swirling and twirling dances that breathe addictive life into the proceedings, a different sort of romanticism that serves to be the smallest respite from the suffocating dictatorship the people suffer under (that is, until they are pressed into propagandistic service, undercutting it all). You’d think a wider angle would serve these sequences better, but cinematographer Lukasz Zal (who co-shot Ida) makes excellent use of the cramped canvas. The music is wonderful, the performances sublime, with Kulig leading the way. Her face lights up the screen, radiant even without color, making her look like a long forgotten silent star finally getting her chance in the spotlight.
It’s a testament to both Kulig and Kot that you want these crazy kids to make it work even as you’re watching them disappoint each other over and over again. But love isn’t simple, and neither is Cold War. For the second straight film, Pawel Pawlikowski has made a beautiful, wrenching drama about a Poland still recovering from a war that took a heavy toll, a country dominated by German occupation only to be immediately used up by the Soviets. Yet he’s also managed to tell two entirely different stories in this shared setting, and while Cold War may not quite reach the heights Ida did four years ago, it more than holds its own. This is a tragic love story like only the best love stories are, one destined to tug heavily on the heartstrings.