Cold War Review: A Broken Romance Whose Happiness Evokes Sadness

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The moment one goes on stage, there’s one face that stands out inside a large crowd that sticks with you. It’s the presence of that one face that either gives you an intense feeling of stage fright, because you know you want to make sure everything goes absolutely right from start to finish – and it can be anyone. It can go from being someone who secretly envies your talent, or someone you’re in love with – and the very feeling that Paweł Pawlikowski shows that pressure to be only under your skin. Yet I saw something else in Cold War that also made it stand out – because every second of it was too beautiful to that degree I could not ever bear to relive such memories again, although I stick around watching it because I know that this is going to forever be a part of the sort of person that I am. But sometimes it doesn’t always have to be yourself that experiences what these memories can do to you, as you sit there and let everything come back inside your mind. When I watched Cold War, I kept something else in my head, something that I know would only be set to sting me more and more. I remembered what it felt like to be separated by those boundaries, no matter the extent we are kept apart. But that mutual tie came so clear in another dedication to the fact we loved what we did to make ourselves happy.

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It is the 1940’s in Poland, and the war had just ended – now the Cold War has begun. A music producer, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), starts auditioning performers only to find himself captivated by the voice of Zula (Joanna Kulig), a woman from a poor background with whom he also falls in love. Yet as their successes in their respective fields only start to occupy their lives all through the years, they have very little time for one another – and yet the most can also be made out of those little moments because of how free they feel in each other’s company, amidst its many highs and lows, and no matter how far apart they may be kept from each other – whether it be as far as one nation to another or through the many unending years. One of the most beautiful things that Pawlikowski shows us from Cold War is the notion that this feeling for one another is one that cannot truly be broken, but even as he plays around with the film’s historical background there is also something all the more emotionally captivating coming into play. But noting how he only ever manages to tell such a story that spans so many years in under an hour and a half, there’s a particular skill that Pawlikowski utilizes that can never go unnoticed, because there’s also a clear personal touch that he adds to this story that only ever allows it to remain so beautiful.

Cold War is truly one among the most beautiful romances that I’ve ever seen, because it doesn’t simply touch upon only everything that makes these people so happy in their lives but what has also made them so broken. There are many moments where the film suddenly breaks to reveal another shift in time, without ever revealing what happened in between that break. Like a real relationship, Cold War feels every bit as broken as one that is truly meant to be, yet may also not be permitted to be. But in these moments what we also have is dedication to art, in this case – we are told a story of what happens in the music industry after the war, though from listening to Zula’s heartbreaking voice what we are also hearing is a statement being made through her art. Yet as the time changes, so does the music as well as its audiences, and even that brokenness still seeps through her own artwork. Everything is shown like it could have been rendered impossible and yet everyone perseveres through the toughest of times, especially given how Pawlikowski places this story amidst a background of post-war Poland. There’s another war present at hand and it’s also what makes every moment of Cold War so greatly affecting – because it’s also very greatly dedicated to showing how human spirit perseveres even through the toughest of times.

With the film’s political background coming into play, there’s another aspect to the film that even gave me memories of Casablanca – albeit more tragic. To Pawlikowski, it’s also crucial to telling you why these people cannot be kept together. Yet that broken spirit also makes itself even clearer, because of what both sides are being made to do without any sense of their control. But I also feel like that brokenness results in yet another feeling of coldness that reflects what being inside of a relationship to this extent can feel like. Being based in part on Pawlikowski’s own parents, there’s another extent to which the film also feels more personally affecting because of that irreplaceable feeling of happiness only ever feeling present when Wiktor and Zula are together. Yet their world is plagued only by cruelty that only further divides people more and more. The war doesn’t ever feel like it’s over, but by some miracle their love manages to change as the time passes by like their music does. Like their own love for one another, their own dedication to the work they love most is what also keeps them moving forward – and it’s that parallel that doesn’t only make these moments so beautiful, but even draws you into that same world they live within.

There’s also much to love about the aesthetic that Pawlikowski places into Cold War, especially in Łukasz Żal’s cinematography – perfectly evoking a sense of nostalgia for the time period, even allowing the film to resemble a classic Hollywood romance, but also in how the framing makes clear how Wiktor and Zula feel. You feel a sense of loneliness from the framing at distance, or even the feeling of being trapped from observing Zula’s face from up close. Pawlikowski places great emphasis on the facial expressions of his actors in order to allow you to come closer to the intimacy of their relationship, but you’re also made to feel that Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig feel together in moments where you don’t even see the two of them in the same scene too. It’s easy enough to say that the performances are wonderful, but I’m amazed at how much can Pawlikowski capture in the way he frames each moment. Whether it be reflective of their place in the world or how the music reflects their emotions, everything about how Pawlikowski tells a decade-long romance story perfectly in a short amount of time only left me breathless from start to finish.

Part of me just felt like I could even sit around for more than half an hour as we had this story of a near-impossible romance come flourishing even more, to make up for those moments where the story suddenly breaks. Yet at the same time, I don’t even know if I can bear to see the pain of those moments because of how I already feel it even in the happiness of their company. I can go on about how moved I was by the way these people use their music to reflect their emotions, but also about how the desire for music in a mostly silent background would also show broken spirit – especially during a tragic point in history. But in that coldness, there’s something else that I find incredibly comforting in what Paweł Pawlikowski manages to bring out in Cold War. I love everything about how this film is framed, because it also makes clear that very pressure of what it feels like when you know you’re about to perform and want to give the very best that is possible, and what it feels like when the possibility of messing up still lies around. But I also love how that feeling of being broken apart from what makes oneself happy even breaks the core of what allowed the spirits of Wiktor and Zula to be at their brightest. Everything should be made to work out for the both of them, yet the world says otherwise. I think about that final frame waiting for something more – but there’s no answer. I know that there’s something more heartbreaking coming forth, but I am unsure how to bear the possibilities.


Watch the trailer right here.

All images via Amazon Studios.


Directed by Paweł Pawlikowski
Screenplay by Paweł Pawlikowski, Janusz Głowacki, Piotr Borkowski
Produced by Tanya Seghatchian, Ewa Puszczynska
Starring Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cédric Kahn, Jeanne Balibar
Release Date: June 8, 2018 (Poland)
Running Time: 88 minutes

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