In the world of art cinema you sometimes get pleasant surprises and one of those pleasant surprises was the unexpected success of Paweł Pawlikowski’s 2014 film Ida. That film was something of a sneak attack; its director was respected but not necessarily a huge name and while it got some buzz at festivals it was largely over-shadowed by other movies. I didn’t even hear about it until I saw its rather striking trailer the week before it came out and new it was going to be something worth checking out. Even more surprising was that the movie was a hit, at least by the modest standard of subtitled film in the 2010s. Its $3 million take might not sound like a lot but if you exclude movies clearly marketed at immigrant communities rather than cinephiles its one of the twenty highest grossing foreign films of the decade, which is kind of awesome considering that it was a black and white movie about Polish nuns and kind of seemed to defy standard notions of commerciality. When he accepted the Best Foreign Language film Oscar that year Pawlikowski gently quipped “how did I get here, made a film… about the need for silence and withdrawal from the world and contemplation and here we are at this epicenter of noise and world attention. Fantastic! Life is full of surprises.” With the clout he earned from that film Pawlikowski has come back with another black and white film about life in 20th Century Poland called Cold War which has arrive with much more fanfare and higher expectations.
Cold War begins in the Poland of 1949 where the post-war Polish People’s Republic has become firmly established as a Soviet puppet state. One of the things this new communist government apparently did was establish an academy of sorts to create a song and dance troupe that would bring respect to the music if the downtrodden proletariat peasants, and this is where our characters come in. Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot) is the musical director and conductor for this troupe while Zuzanna Lichoń (Joanna Kulig) is a young woman who auditions for the troupe and immediately catches his eye. Before long the two have started an affair and when the troupe finds itself touring to East Berlin Warski proposes that the two try to escape to the west.
First and foremost Cold War just looks really awesome. Like Ida before it the film is in black and white and in the academy ratio so as to invoke the look of the European arthouse films of the era its set in. Experiments to imitate previous filmmaking eras like The Good German or The Artist often come off a bit gimmicky but Pawlikowski has really managed to make something that looks like the genuine article and seems aesthetically pleasing beyond mere nostalgia. Ida was of course a movie about spiritual exploration so it’s look perhaps invoked something more along the lines of a Bresson or Tarkovsky, but Cold War is more of an epic romance of sorts and takes the form of something like a European noir or some of Rossellini’s work in the 50s. Helping this illusion is that Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig both manage to have a very classical look, which is admittedly probably helped by the fact that neither of them are terribly well known in the English speaking world.
The movie is, at its heart a film a relationship that’s rocky for both internal and external reasons. Sometimes they’re kept apart by the repressive society they live in, sometimes they’re separated by national borders, sometimes they’re separated by relationships with other people or even by incarceration but often they’re also often separated by their own dysfunction. At times this seems like a pair that are almost going out of their way not to be happy and I think part of the problem is that the movie feels a bit rushed at times. This is after all a movie that’s set over the course of more than fifteen years but runs a scant 85 minutes and this means that certain stages in their relationship have to be summed up in just a scene or two and the last development in the film feels especially rushed through. If you’re going to make an epic romance I don’t see why you wouldn’t want it to be a bit more epic in its length, Still the film’s style makes up for a lot and even if we’re only getting a taste of this romance it does still leave you with some of the emotion and when the film looks like it does that’s always just going to be catnip for film critics.
**** out of Five