Cold War was Poland’s official selection for entry into the 91st Academy Award’s Best Foreign Film award, for which it was subsequently nominated, in addition to picking up nominations for Best Director for Pawel Pawlikowski and Best Cinematography for Łukasz Żal. Set in post-war Europe in the 1950s, a Polish theater director falls for a singer in his theater troupe. Their tumultuous, yet passionate, relationship is put to the test when he tries to convince her to flee communist Poland for an artistically liberated life in Paris.
Cold War is one of the most technically impressive films of the year, without a doubt. Gorgeous frame composition and intricately lit shots litter the film, making every frame one to remember. These stylistic choices are not just for looks, but rather are refreshingly intentional in the storytelling as well. The shots of communist Poland are static and rigid, carefully blocked and framed to emphasize the structure they are forced into. In contrast, Paris is shot with free moving and kinetic camera work that feels liberated from the oppressive order enforced in Poland.
In addition to the cinematography separating the two cultural and economic systems, so too does the music. The goal of the theater company in Poland is to bring to a wider audience the beauty of traditional Polish music and dances. In contrast, the music in Paris is a selection of cutting-edge jazz compositions and improvisation. All of this contrast created by the stylistic elements of the film are in service to illustrate the divide between the relationship of the two main characters.
Wiktor is a classy theater director born into a place of distinction in wealthy Warsaw, while his love interest Zula is a Polish peasant plucked from obscurity to perform in his theater troupe. Being from such different backgrounds, their political ideologies and artistic integrity become the main form of tension in their relationship. Wiktor sees the opportunity to escape to a capitalist state as artistic liberation from a system designed not to recognize great music, but use it as a tool to propagate a message of support for communist invaders. Zula sees the Paris artistic scene as a form of profiteering art to appeal to the wealthy bourgeoise, who don’t appreciate art for its intrinsic value.
Pawlikowski never takes a side in this debate, putting both members of this relationship on equal footing and allowing the audience to make up their own minds. However, in what remains the most important aspect of the film, their relationship, he clearly has a message he is attempting to convey. Love does not care about ideology, national borders, language, or ethnicity, and that love is intrinsically beautiful.
Cold War is a technical marvel that demands to be contemplated and discussed as one of the year’s best films.