Starring: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Running Time: 88 mins
Cold War (Zimna wojna) is a Polish film about a man and a woman who meet while working in the propaganda division of the Polish government during the early 1950s, yet encounter numerous obstacles to their relationship as they are divided by the split between East and West.
This is a film with a lot of style and a lot of character, featuring stunning cinematography, beautiful music and dance, and a fascinating setting on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain at the beginning of The Cold War, all of which make up some of the film’s most riveting elements.
However, as striking as it is in that regard, the film stumbles with its narrative, getting stuck in a rather repetitive and episodic rhythm that doesn’t inspire the most enthralling emotional development throughout, and left me at times a little bored.
Before I get into that, however, I want to talk about the film’s most striking and memorable element: the music. This is by no means a musical, but its story focuses on a man and a woman whose lives revolve entirely around music, so there are a good few musical breaks as we see them showing off their talents in a range of environments.
And that’s what I really liked about the music here: the diversity. Rather than just sticking to one tune, the film showcases an enormous range of music, from Polish folk songs in the first act to sleek French jazz in the last, and a whole lot more in between. That diversity alone is enough to make each musical break absolutely brilliant to watch, but it’s furthered by the passion and energy that go into every one of those numbers, with director Pawel Pawlikowski doing a fantastic job at making the music stand out above everything else, and crafting an elegant and striking atmosphere around the songs on a consistent basis.
That’s where the film’s beautiful visuals come in. Filmed in brilliant black-and-white, there’s a sharp and striking look to Cold War right from the start, and in combination with excellent camerawork that replicates the unique brilliance of Ida, Pawlikowski’s last work, every scene of this film is absolutely gorgeous to look at.
What’s more is that each of those musical numbers receives a special attention to detail that makes them stand out even more, with the cinematography changing dramatically depending on whether we’re hearing a slow ballad in a smoky Parisian jazz club, or a mighty propaganda song in front of an enormous poster of Joseph Stalin.
The whole film is directed with real passion and energy, making every scene a delight to look at, and cementing an incredibly elegant and striking atmosphere that pervades right the way through. As good as that is though, it’s not quite enough to make a thoroughly engrossing film, which is where Cold War really falls down.
The story at hand is, at its core, a rather simple one. A man and a woman love each other, but find they can never be together due to a series of obstacles, whether it be the ideological divide between East and West, or their own personal situations coming round to stifle their romance.
It’s a wonderful story, and one that works well with the film’s atmosphere, as well as providing a fascinating portrayal of life in the early Cold War on both sides of the Iron Curtain, but the way in which it develops over the course of 88 minutes is my biggest source of frustration in this movie.
As elegant and passionate as their romance is, the film recounts it in a series of rather short vignettes, as we jump through the 1950s pretty much year-by-year, and that structure is just too jarring and episodic to really hammer home the emotion and drama lying underneath the surface.
While it’s interesting to see how the man and the woman’s lives change so dramatically from year to year, the core focus of the movie – their romance – feels very repetitive. In each little vignette of a year, we see the two grow closer, only to be separated once again, and with a rather abrupt cut to black at the end of each episode, it’s really difficult to get to grips with the depth of their relationship without being distracted by the frustratingly repetitive nature of the narrative.
I would have preferred to see the film showcase their story through the years in a more fluid structure, so that we come to focus more on the smaller details of how the characters change, rather than simply looking at the wider picture of where they are in the world, and whatever reason they can’t be together – again.
Overall, I was impressed by Cold War, albeit largely on an aesthetic level. It’s a beautifully-filmed piece, complete with a very elegant atmosphere, sharp black-and-white cinematography, as well as a passionate portrayal of a wide range of wonderful music throughout. It’s not the most enthralling drama ever made, due to a frustratingly repetitive story structure, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t quite a bit to admire here, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.3.