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Torch songs

‘Cold War’ is an elegant post-WWII romance

Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot in “Cold War”

Opus Film

In his follow-up to the 2015 Oscar-winning film “Ida,” director Pawel Pawlikowski leaves behind the taciturn exploration of devotion and historical sin, drawing instead from his own parents’ love story. And while the story of a nun uncovering a dark family secret certainly made his last film enthralling to follow, it ultimately felt too aloof. Pawlikowski and “Cold War” excels where “Ida” ultimately felt too rigid, in its celebration of a stormy romance set to the tune of traditional Polish folk songs. And while the Polish filmmaker’s precise camerawork and formalism remain, it’s the mercurial romance between the two leads that makes “Cold War” a shot to the heart.

Set against the backdrop of Europe after World War II, the film opens with a protracted sequence of composer Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and companions traveling the Polish countryside, recording and gathering a compendium of traditional, peasant-style songs for what will soon become a traveling roadshow. These folk songs frequently entail the travails of broken hearts and tragic love—a beautifully composed primer on the chaotic, inward love story that follows.

Soon after Wiktor grows infatuated with Zula (Joanna Kulig), a protean peasant girl who wiles her way into an audition for a Polish folk singing troupe. The budding romance is passionate early on, a frequent respite from the rigorous song and dance routines they perform across Poland, yet as time marches on the troupe is pushed into performing more propagandistic material on bigger stages and for more Communist-leaning dignitaries. The trajectory strains the already volatile relationship between composer and songstress. As their desires draw them closer, they’re torn apart by a choice that haunts them throughout the turbulent decade following the end of the war.

Zula and Wiktor’s love flowers in the blissful fields of Poland’s rural countryside. It’s soon battered and provoked by the tempestuous storm immediately following the downfall of the Axis Powers. It wilts in the shadow of Soviet dominance and Communist rule over Poland, yet blossoms anew in the vibrant glow of the Parisian nightlife and jazz scene Wiktor flees to rather than play conductor to a Communist propaganda machine. It is put to the ultimate test when Wiktor choose love over freedom, both artistic and physical, in order to be with Zula.

Photographed in striking black and white by frequent collaborator Lukasz Zal, Pawlikowski commands every minute with gorgeous compositions that are assured and formalistic without ever feeling overly rigid. Joanna Kulig is arresting as the tumultuous Zula. Her portrayal a roiling, raw-nerve tour-de-force to Tomasz Kot’s perspicacious Wiktor.

A film so elegantly composed, so restrained, yet so slight and brief, has left this critic saying something not often said of today’s films and their overly bloated two hour-plus runtimes: “Cold War” left me longing for more in all the best possible ways.

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