COLD WAR – Review by Diane Carson

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Cold War embeds late 1940s Polish politics into a personal story.

Oppressive political policies often come most alive when embedded in strong personal stories. That’s the case in writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War. In 1949 Poland, three workers travel the countryside in a van collecting folk music on audiotape all in honor of the nation. A favored few singers and dancers will be chosen to represent their People’s culture.

When the singer Zula catches the eye and the heart of the pianist Wiktor, she becomes a featured artist and an informant. Soon Soviet authorities transform the folk music into propaganda in the service of Stalin, land reform, and the World Proletariat. Zula and Wiktor face monumental decisions, ones not always in accord. Still, their love anchors developments over the next fifteen years of their lives, from Paris to Yugoslavia to Poland. Consequential moments are communicated by actor Tomasz Kot’s charismatic, implosive presence as Wiktor against Joanna Kulig’s captivating, volatile performance as Zula.

Working again with Lukasz Zal, his Academy Award nominated cinematographer for Ida, Pawlikowski chose to shoot in black and white because, as he said at Telluride where I first saw Cold War, the black and white honestly, clearly and metaphorically presents the contrasting milieu. For its part, the camera quietly observes as events unfold and moves lyrically as action requires. The music further differentiates East from West, with jazz and rock-and-roll defining musical and dancing scenes in Paris, so distinctly different from the refashioned folk tunes.

Through meticulous details, the story vividly communicates the impact of 1950s Communist rule and life behind the Iron Curtain on these two individuals. It’s a world Pawlikowski knew well, noting that his parents’ relationship followed a similar pattern to that here. Though it took place over a half century ago, so artistically is this delivered, that parallels still suggest themselves, interesting to consider in all their ramifications.

Pawlikowski won the Cannes Film Festival Best Director Award for Cold War, and it is also Poland’s submission for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar. Primarily in Polish but also with French, German, Russian, Italian and Croatian, all with English subtitles.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.