Cold War: Oscar-Nominated Polish Period Romance Recalls Hollywood of Yesteryear

By Liam Lacey

Rating: A

In an imaginary streaming-queue algorithm of the near future, I can easily imagine the suggestion: “If you liked the Hollywood weeper, A Star Is Born and the Oscar-winning Polish historical drama, Ida, you will love Cold War.”

Apparently, the Academy of Motions Pictures Arts and Sciences felt the same way. In their nominations this week. The Oscar voters gave Cold War three nominations - the most ever for a Polish film. One of them is an upset directing nomination for writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski, who previously won the Oscar for best foreign film for Ida.

Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig. A musically inspired romance heats up in Pawel Pawilikowski’s Cold War

Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig. A musically inspired romance heats up in Pawel Pawilikowski’s Cold War

On the face of it, the luminous black-and-white musical melodrama Cold War is a movie of the kind Hollywood used to make, about an attractive couple who sing and fight and love together.  The story follows the tempestuous post-War relationship between the tall and angular, classically trained musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and a singer-dancer named Zula (Joanna Kulig), the latter of whom enters an audition for a traditional folk ensemble, though she really doesn’t evoke the requisite quality of rustic innocence. 

Zula has a “history,” including stabbing her father ("He mistook me for my mother, so I used a knife to show him the difference”). But Wiktor sees something he definitely likes and casts her in the ensemble.  Soon, she's dressed up in a puffy skirt to sing for contrived "folk" groups, whose purpose is  to entertain the masses in war-ravaged Warsaw, as well as to promote farm reform and celebrate the glorious proletariat leaders.

Between a sequence of well-staged performance pieces and furtive moments of intimacy, they fall in love, and in and out of love again.  The film tracks the ill-matched Wiktor and Zula for more than decade, from state concerts in Moscow and Berlin, to smoky claustrophobic jazz cafes and garrets in Paris and back to vast greyness of Poland. 

The story is eliptical, punctuated by blackouts, but, in a sense, easy to follow because it's familiar. 

The evocation of classic Hollywood is deliberate: The film is shot in the square-ish Academy ratio, with a story that echoes any number of melancholic showbiz dramas (La La Land, New York, New York, A Star is Born). No doubt, Zula is something of a classic femme fatale, though we can also see her instances of disloyalty are self-protective. In contrast, Wiktor, the romantic artist, is both idealistic and destructively egocentric. The "cold war" of the title, while defining the historical period, is also a description of their bitter love affair, apparently based on the relationship of the director's parents.

Cold War is self-consciously artful, with cinematographer Lukasz Zal's changes in depth-of-field and extreme black-and-white contrasts pulling our attention to the way the film is framed. As appealing as the actors are, they come across as allegorical figures in a dark fable of love and art under the Communist boot. As director Guillermo del Toro said of Roma, this year's other hit black-and-white foreign-language drama inspired by the director's family, the film is “a fresco, not a portrait.”

Though Pawlikowski has lived and worked as a filmmaker in England all his adult life (Ida was his first Polish-language film), the context of this “fresco” is worth mentioning. It's generally agreed that Soviet Communism never rooted deeply in Poland and the regime was riven by internal factions and worker and student protests in every decade. In the 1980s, Poland was the ground of the first cracks in the Iron Curtain, through the Solidarity movement and the influence of a Polish-born pope, John Paul II

We can see Cold War as a look back on recent history, not through the lens of realism, but as a Hollywood fantasy, a kind of romantic protest against a political nightmare.

Cold War. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. Written by Pawel Pawlikowski and Janusz Glowacki. Starring Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig. Cold War opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on January 25.