Review: Cold War (2018)

Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War is a study of life in post-war Poland, following two lovers who would never fit in among the communist society that formed. This is romance at its extremes, two self-destructive people trapped inside a brutal machine.

Cold War runs largely off the vibrancy of its characters. The story starts with Wiktor Warski recruiting peasants for a folk music project. He becomes immediately enamored with Zula, a beautiful young woman who begins by attempting to ride the coattails of a more vocally-talented woman and is soon exposed as a city girl. Despite this, Wiktor casts her and they begin an increasingly desperate love affair.

The narrative structure is straightforward, its cruelty all the more palpable due to the simplicity. There’s so much at play here – two artists restricted in their freedom to create, but increasingly difficult to cheer on as more inner flaws are exposed. Cold War plays with our ability to sympathize.

What really sells Cold War as an important film is its stunning black and white cinematography, framed in a square ratio as if to announce that this is indeed an art film. Each image feels as if it could have fallen out of some old photo album. Pawlikowski has a tendency to allow his central images to sit just off-center, drawing our attention to the full picture. He’s dedicated to a conspicuous lack of symmetry.

There’s something disconcertingly fatalistic about the film, which holds a certain power but might not have landed with me as intended. Perhaps I lack the cynicism to be snared by its message – Cold War hits like the bleakest kind of Bergman movie. But walking disasters like these characters certainly exist – this is a film that seems to lack personal resonance despite carrying all the signifiers of a great work of art.

But with a title like Cold War, I suspect that feeling is intentional. The concept of giving up on everything but a single person should leave us cold. They are relatable and not – I’m sure many people have experienced a love that might have bordered on obsession at some point, but to carry it as far as Wiktor and Zula is madness.

Cold War is undeniably a well-crafted film. The actors, the cinematography, the staging, the sound – from a formalistic perspective, this is easily one of the most impressive films of 2018. It never wastes time, saying so much in less than 90 minutes. Its design is purely mechanical – cold.

But I’m wrong to suggest this movie is entirely cold – it’s filled with the fire of passion. In fact, I think contradictions are a key element of this film. People madly in love go out of their way to harm each other while beautiful camerawork lingers on dirty scenes – this is love framed against rubble. Perhaps this is less about love and more about trying to find something, anything to be passionate about in a world where expression is limited and constantly surveyed.

To put it plainly, I walked away from Cold War not knowing what to make of it – though its narrative was succinct, the meaning behind it is layered. These are the films that carry a lasting impact, and I’m certain this will be a work I look back on in a year with a stronger perspective. I’m already eager to revisit it, which is a rare state for me. But at this current moment, I can only say it’s a beautiful film that didn’t resonate quite enough to hit me now.

4 Stars Out of 5