Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War” is a very hot movie. (See my Best Ten films of 2018 list.) Inspired by the lives of his late parents, he has created a turbulent love story that rages on both sides of the iron curtain. Exquisitely filmed in realistic black and white, “Cold War” is rich in visual atmosphere as it dramatizes the opposing political realms under which the lovers maneuver in their on-again, off-again relationship. The film, shown at the 2018 New York Film Festival, is now going into commercial release.
Handsome Tomasz Kot plays Wiktor, a pianist for a Polish folk song troupe. (The film’s score is a major plus.) He is rapidly smitten by a beautiful singer, Zula, portrayed by the captivating Joanna Kulig. She is clearly manipulative in figuring out a way to be in the forefront of an audition. How can Wiktor resist? There is resentment on the part of an older woman colleague who recognizes what is happening as Zula catapults into a starring presence in the choir. Troupe manager Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), also attracted to Zula, is extremely jealous.
A love affair between Wiktor and Zula blossoms and deepens. But there is increasing pressure on the folk company to inject more Stalinist propaganda into its programs. (Kaczmarek knuckles under as a cooperative fuctionary.) Having to conform gets to a point that Wiktor cannot stand and he plans an escape to the West. Zula pledges to go with him. But she doesn’t show up at the rendezvous, and he takes off on his own.
There begins a period of longings and reconnections, Wiktor plays piano at a jazz club in Paris, and you know that Zula will eventually turn up. But working out a life together is fraught with complications.
A driving underlying force is Zula’s feeling for her homeland despite all, and Wiktor feels that too. The film indicates how unsettling it is to leave one’s roots behind, as many emigrants have discovered. For all that is politically problematical, Poland still has a strong pull on both, even with Wiktor in danger if he returns.
Zula shows her love for Wiktor when he is imprisoned… but no further spoilers here. The film surges to an ending that is at one beautifully romantic but ultimately deeply upsetting as it achieves a well-rounded finale consistent with all that has gone before, even though one might wish for a different outcome.
It is no wonder that “Cold War” has been collecting awards. If you want to be sure not to miss one of the year’s best films, put “Cold War” on your must see list. An Amazon Studios release. Reviewed Dec. 20, 2018.