COLD WAR – Review by Marietta Steinhart

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An amour fou in difficult times is not unfamiliar territory – except when it is. Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War is bittersweet and almost unbearably beautiful, with music that changes over time – like love.

Four years after winning an Oscar for best-foreign-language film for Ida, author and director Pawel Pawlikowski has returned with three-time Oscar-nominated Cold War, a meticulously composed story of love shattered by the Iron Curtain, and temperaments. It will break your heart, but never mind: despair has never looked so gorgeous.

Much credit is due to brilliant Joanna Kulig, who took home her Best European Actress Award last year, and purrs and jazzes her way through this film.The Polish stage and TV actress who starred opposite Ethan Hawke in Pawlikowski’s thriller, The Woman in the Fifth (2011), is mesmerizing. Pawlikowski wrote this part specifically for her.

The director was loosely inspired by the turbulent marriage of his parents, a military doctor and a ballerina, and together with his writing partners, Janusz Głowacki and Piotr Borkowski, and his sublime Oscar-nominated cameraman, Łukasz Żal, has created something that is awe-inspiring. Like Ida, they shot Cold War in dazzling black-and-white and Academy ratio, which is a smart choice, because the film has you believe that it’s a product of its time. And as time changes, so too does the music, from folk to jazz to early Rock n’ Roll and pop.

We first meet the luminous Zula (Joanna Kulig) in 1949, when she auditions for a Polish version of America’s Got Talent, a folklore choir, for which the producer and pianist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is putting together a tour. The young woman is on probation, because apparently she wanted to kill her own father. When addressed, she explains matter-of-factly: “He confused me with my mother, so I showed him the difference with a knife.” Needless to say, Wiktor falls in love with the volatile blonde. And she with him.

The ensemble attracts so much attention, the state-sanctioned official Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) wants to promote a tour in the Eastern Bloc to export a vision of “peasant authenticity”, but could they sing songs about the miracle that is communism? Disgusted, Wiktor wants to escape to the West, but Zula is scared. She is a star in Poland. And so Wiktor, heartbroken, defects while Zula sings Polish folk songs for Stalin.

But they can’t stay away from each other. Their paths will cross in different places over the following decade – from Warsaw to Paris and beyond. In the end it’s the war between their personalities that will stand in the way of their happiness. The ex-pat, Wiktor, now a Parisian jazz pianist, is for the wild Lula just a boring shadow of the man he once was in Poland.

Kot is the cool head of the drama and Kulig its recalcitrant heart. In the course of history, Zula’s folk songs reappear as jazzy French chansons. Another time we find her dancing, wholeheartedly, to Rock Around The Clock.

American audiences may be less familiar with Joanna Kulig’s face, but that will change. In one scene, Zula is floating down a river on her back with all but her face and hands submerged. Pawlikowski understands the appeal of such images and as viewers we submerge, too, willingly.

ABOUT MARIETTA STEINHART: Born and raised in Vienna, Marietta Steinhart is a New York City based film critic, contributing to Zeit Online, among other media, covering US cinema and TV. She’s an esteemed member of The International Federation of Film Critics and a frequent juror in Film Festivals.

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