COLD WAR Starring: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot Directed by: Pawel Pawlikowski Rated: R Running Time: 1 HR 29 mins Amazon Studios
Nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography), “Cold War” is an engaging yet tragic period drama that is much deserving of all its accolades. Shot entirely in black-and-white with English subtitles, writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski (“Ida”) deftly captures the brutal essence of communist-controlled Eastern Europe while putting us on a complicated, 15-year odyssey of obsession.
The story begins in 1949 Poland where the scars of a world war are still fresh. A soft-spoken music director Wiktor (Tomasz Kot, “Gods”) is tapped to co-helm a school that’s intended to create a group of talented young people to stage traditional, Polish folk dances. It is during auditions at the bullet-ridden school that a crafty blonde singer named Zula (Joanna Kulig, “Pitbull: Tough Women”) catches his eye. Despite a warning about her troubled past, Wiktor and Zula develop a secret, passionate love affair.
Two years later they have an opportunity to escape their communist oppressors by crossing into West Berlin, but Zula chickens out while the brooding Wiktor leaves her behind anyway to go carve out a life as a jazz pianist in Paris. Even though lovers come and go as the years pass by, Wiktor still regards Zula as the love of his life. His devotion to her is so strong that he even risks being sent to a Polish prison when he travels to Yugoslavia to watch Zula perform.
They only reunite when Zula marries an Italian man so she can get out from behind the Iron Curtain to be with Wiktor. A successful singing career begins to take shape with Wiktor accompanying her on piano. However, her jealousy towards other women and her desire to be the center of attention, especially Wiktor’s, leads Zula to run back to communist Poland. Wiktor is desperate to follow her but he knows he will be arrested if he does. It proves to be a fateful test of his devotion to her.
Pawlikowski’s endeavor has all the feel of a film straight out of 1957 as he channels the bleak repression the peoples of Eastern Europe faced under Soviet dominance. There is a paranoid sense that there are eyes everywhere, and in some instances its true. It’s this omnipresent fear he generates with his script that gives Zula and Wiktor’s relationship a palpable edginess. Their romance is so much like a careening roller coaster that it makes it difficult to accurately predict its outcome.
Kulig is brilliant as she infuses a sense of instability into Zula. In a way, you want to yell out in vain to Wiktor to stay away from her, but his devotion runs so deep that he is beyond help. This obsession is played with expert subtlety by Kot and skillful direction by Pawlikowski who keeps the pacing brisk with a short running time. Never mind the critical darling that is “Roma.” Instead, go see “Cold War.” Trust me, there’s nothing cold about it.