By Jessica Owoc
January 30, 2019
Every tale of star-crossed lovers has its own set of circumstances that drives the lovers apart no matter how hard they try to stay together. Romeo and Juliet had their feuding families, Jack and Rose had an iceberg, Tony and Maria were kept apart by well choreographed rival gangs. Cold War is no different for its pair of passionate lovers, Zula and Wiktor (Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot, respectively). Set during, well, the Cold War in the 1950s, our predestined pair meet, fall in love and, against all odds, engage in a relationship that over the course of many years has every obstacle thrown at it.
Wiktor and Zula first meet in Poland soon after WWII, when Zula auditions for Wiktor’s traveling singing and dancing company. Wiktor and his business partner, Irena (Agata Kulesza), are looking for traditional “folk” singers to showcase and although Zula, with her checkered past, doesn’t quite fit the bill, Wiktor is drawn by her undeniable talent. As the company travels around Poland and gains notoriety, the political climate of the time starts to penetrate the bubble surrounding the pair. The two of them plan a romantic escape (to Paris nonetheless!), but Zula decides not to go through with it and thus begins their will-they-won’t-they affair.
Each scene is like a snapshot of time, giving the audience a glimpse into the lives of Zula and Wiktor at a particular moment as they navigate their love throughout the years. While this storytelling device is helpful to cover a lot of ground (the film spans more than a decade), it’s hard not to feel left wanting a little bit more. Just a few seconds longer of the argument between Wiktor and Zula in the streets of Paris, a little more insight into what kept bringing them together even when they were living completely different lives apart. Did they write letters? Talk on the phone? But, as with all great tragic love stories, the mystery of it all is what keeps us captivated.
The tone of the film is set by the fact it’s shot entirely in black and white. The high-contrast scenes and the stark Polish landscapes give the viewer a sense of the despair that surrounded the post-war country. While the political policies are the backdrop to the story of Zula and Wiktor, they are an ever-present reminder of a time in our not so distant past. The Soviet presence surrounds Zula and Wiktor, which is a major factor in the plan to run away together. As Wiktor waits for Zula so they can escape to Paris, the images of guards patrolling the border draws a direct connection to our own political climate, turning a period piece into a timeless portrait that proves to be just as relevant today as it is in the 1950’s.
The chemistry between Kulig and Kot is undeniable as their quests for love, belonging, and fame stretch on. Their furtive glances, secret meetings, and even their fiery tantrums, are grounded by a sense of ease and naturalness. They seem to belong together from the very beginning. The electricity between the pair jumps through the screen.
The film throws a lot at the hardships at the couple over the years and does a great job of illustrating the characters of these two very different people. Wiktor appears to be unchanged in his motivations. At one point he emerges after years of being contained by Soviet forces, and his priority is still Zula. No matter what Wiktor has to overcome he remains steadfast in his desires. Conversely, small but very effective details show the passage of time and how the years change Zula. Subtle changes in Zula’s appearance over time– from the bright-eyed, fringe-wearing young girl to the more jaded, stylized woman she becomes– showcase who she is at any given moment. Even though we don’t get much information on their lives outside of each other, Kulig’s performance, best exemplified in a moment where she and Kot sit on a bathroom floor after what seemed to be a successful show for Zula, shows a woman exhausted and trapped in the life that she didn’t expect.
Foreign films can be daunting for some, yet this tragic love story is one that transcends the subtitle barrier, speaking a language that everyone can understand: heartache. Cold War provides a stylized, heartbreaking look at two people who maybe under a different set of circumstances could have had it all. Pawel Pawlikowski’s film — with its stunning visuals, dynamic characters, and universal themes of love, letdown, and everything — is worthy of its Oscar-nominated status.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5