A Tale Of ‘Cold War’-Crossed Lovers

Two Musical Geniuses Torn Pole to Pole By History

Epic, rhapsodic, tragic, Cold War is an elegiac dream. Like the best movie romances, Paweł Pawlikowsi’s fugue of star-crossed lovers makes the audience ache for happy endings and savor those tender moments of fleeting bliss. Who knew meet-cute ethnographic recording sessions could lead to erotically-charged defections?

As the 1940s draw to a close, war-scarred Eastern Europe picks up the pieces by sowing folk music from the dirt-poor countryside for an inspirational touring show. “The music of pain and humiliation,” says a producer. “And joy, if through tears.”

The strife within the haunting melodies is palpable, and those who share their heritage at auditions are just as beaten down. Except a young woman named Zula (Joanna Kulig) seems downright determined. Her song? She got it from a movie. A “nostalgia musical,” she explains, undeterred by her own inauthenticity. Rumor has it she stabbed her father but got a suspended sentence. She captivates Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), one of the musical judges.

COLD WAR ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
Directed by: Paweł Pawlikowsi
Written by: Paweł Pawlikowsi
Starring: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Jeanne Balibar, Cédric Kahn
Running time: 89 min.


So begins a torrid affair between singer and pianist, a woman determined to escape poverty and a man longing to leave the oppression of his country. The government apparatchiks want to customize their peasant-style folk troupe, because they figure the Poles will be a stronger satellite of the U.S.S.R. if the songs of their ancestors are somehow co-opted by the state. Zula happily obliges, but Wiktor takes off as soon as they tour outside of Poland.

Oops I did it again

Over the next 15 years, Zula becomes an Iron Curtain star while Wiktor ends up composing for Western films and playing jazz on the side. They reunite and break-up, again and again, as their lives take them from Poland to East Germany, France, and Yugoslavia.

So begins a chronicle not just of a rocky relationship but of untethered souls, people who inexorably become numb to nationalistic affiliation or cultural identity. One eerie traditional Polish tune re-emerges as a drowsy nightclub torch song, then gets re-branded with completely new French lyrics. It’s not so much organic assimilation as it is shameless, opportunistic appropriation. The two lovers lose sight of themselves, and despite their endearing desire, the emotional abuse and overdrinking only get worse.

As with the Oscar-winning Ida, Pawlikowsi’s brilliant last film, Cold War contemplates how personal lives are swept up in the tsunami of greater political forces. The result feels even more heartfelt, and for good reason. He dedicated the film to his parents, whose tempestuous history inspired the story. They provide the namesakes for its main characters.

Just as he did with his previous triumph, the Polish filmmaker also audaciously shot this latest movie in lush black and white with a throwback 1.33 aspect ratio. It’s almost a taunt to 3-D IMAX lovers throughout the world: put down your polarized glasses and pay attention. You want to see a spectacle? Watch two human beings torn apart by fate.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

One thought on “A Tale Of ‘Cold War’-Crossed Lovers

  • January 12, 2019 at 5:45 pm

    Great film, very efficient in delivering the most content with minimalist means. Everything is perfect: top acting, top direcing, fabulous photography, incredible music and the writing. The writing is the best. The writing provides the essence of what Cold War was about historically. You needed to read between the lines all the time, nothing was given to you straight.


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