Movie Review: Cold War
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Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
by Jason Koenigsberg
A music director falls in love with a gorgeous and mysterious singer in post World War II Poland in Cold War, Pawel Pawlikowski’s follow up to his critically acclaimed international sensation Ida (2013). The movie opens up with hands playing a bagpipe, the camera stays on the fingers to reveal that they are hard workers hands, then pans over to a man playing a fiddle, both have withered, tired faces of men that have lived a rough life. They play their instruments and then sing, and then the camera pans over to a little boy watching on and only then does the first shot finally cut to black. This way of life may be over soon for the people who lived it and a different future is awaiting the youth, but not a bright future. Cold War is a cynical film with beautiful black and white cinematography shot in full frame presentation, as opposed to the conventional widescreen letterbox most movies are photographed. There are black bars on the sides of the screen that is more distracting than the subtitles, but the director wanted to be unconventional for a reason. It starts off in 1949 Poland, then moves to France during the middle and closes in 1960’s Poland chronicling a couple’s on and off romance.
This movie relies heavily on the performance of its two leads Joanna Kulig as Zula the female singer and Tomasz Kot as Wiktor the musical director. Unfortunately, only one of them has the look, talent, and screenplay benefits to add depth and mystique to carry Cold War. Joanna Kulig is nothing short of brilliant in all of her scenes as she grows and evolves before our eyes in a love affair that spans decades but the audience only gets to spend 89 minutes with her. An unusually short run time for a typical dramatic film these days but Kulig is able to sell herself as a woman someone could fall madly in love with and be willing to go to prison for. She is outstanding and deserving of all the praise she has received. Tomasz Kot on the other hand sadly lacks the screen presence or is not given enough from the script to develop his character into being interesting or compelling. Other than his obvious musical talent he is uninteresting and uncharismatic and hard to understand why the woman would fall for him and be willing to do some of the life-changing actions she does in the film for him. He seems just like a regular guy that can conduct and play the piano.
Cold War is a triumph as a parable about how communism ruined an original musical work of art and later tore apart two lovers and caused them an uncanny amount of anguish. It works best as a film about how politics and people in power cannot see the end of their influence and their decisions can destroy not only art but also people’s lives. It spans decades illustrating this starting off with just a small moment where a director’s vision for his musical celebrating simple peasant life is interfered with when the government forces them to add pro-Stalin propaganda. Artists being forced to compromise their visions to the ones in power. Cold War is best for American audiences right now as a sly commentary on Trump and US media outlets and the fake news controversies. These men and the news they create can cause unforeseen heartbreak for people they never meet.
The other element that makes Cold War worth seeing is how it serves as a mini-history lesson on music in Eastern Europe during the second half of the twentieth century. The opening shot shows the primitive methods musicians created songs right after Poland was devastated from World War II and then moves up through peasant musicals equipped with traditional Polish costumes to more sophisticated sets, costumes, and musical numbers. Then eventually the musicians tackle jazz, swing, rock and roll and eventually a Latin-influenced concert, where the costumes, musicians and even hairpieces are not authentic to anything Polish. The music changes and evolves as the actual cold war drags on and the world changes around our main characters.
It is also important to note that the main couple in Cold War are very much in love but each suffers from mental illness. Their actions and the consequences would have hurtful effects on other people in their lives and they make decisions that cause physical and emotional damage to themselves. It is one thing to be passionately and unapologetically in love with another person, but without giving too much away, the couple in Cold War take this to levels that involve debilitating pain that would hurt their livelihood and willful imprisonment. That goes beyond what love means for most people so it is important to understand that the director has to assume these lovers are somewhat mentally unstable and as he did in Ida treats death as something rather insignificant which makes Cold War feel aptly cold and unconventional from American melodramas. The other unfortunate aspect of Cold War is that it was released the same year as The Death of Stalin, a hilarious version about life during the cold war under a communist regime. This took its subject matter seriously, Death of Stalin treated those serious topics as a long Monty Python sketch. You can decide what film suits you better.