Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Four

#4 — Cold War (Paweł Pawlikowski, 2018)

Cold War is the story of Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot). Not long after the end of World War II, Wiktor is one of the people charged with presiding over a troupe that performs Polish folk songs, singing and dancing to spread nationalistic culture with a state-mandated dash of propaganda about the superiority of Communist rule. Zula auditions for the troupe, winning a spot despite the face that she has a sordid past that she initially tries to hide with a guise of modest, peasant-class beginnings (displaying her own flair for cunning truth-bending). Zula and Wiktor fall in love, and the film depicts the tumult of their time together and, almost as often, heartrendingly apart.

Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Janusz Głowacki and Piotr Borkowski, Cold War is an astonishing feat of earthy elegance. Covering nearly two decades, the story unfolds with an exquisite attention to all the elements that give a film a piercing believability, that makes it feel lived rather than shot. Places feel right, emotions are pure and pointed, characters slump and soar in reaction to recognizable moments rather than the demands of plot progression, and it all transpires with the overlapping attributes of spontaneity and inevitability. Every last bit of the film feels of its moment, vibrantly pure and true. Pawlikowski reportedly based the story on the lives of his parents in and out of the Eastern Bloc, precariously grasping to some level of autonomy when suppression closed down like a rust-encrusted vise. Perhaps in part because of this inspiration, the film comes across with the romanticism and wounds of resonant memory.

Shot in intensely beautiful black and white by cinematographer Łukasz Żal, Cold War is a visual marvel. Pawlikowski has an unerring sense for the most striking way to depict a scene, an exchange, a moment. The staging is consistently managed in such a way as to get to the most out of the controlled simplicity of the storytelling, as if scraping up the tastiest bits from the edges of a pot. Places have souls, people have innate potency of purpose, and a rock ‘n’ roll song played at exactly the right time in exactly the right locale can magically feel like stirring freedom. The film has a tremendous sweep, not because it indulges in the trappings of cinematic grandiosity, but quite the opposite. By honing in on intimate details — and by giving Kulig and Kot the room to develop complex, deeply felt performances — Pawlikowski makes Cold War feel as limitless in its possibility as life itself.

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