Cold War / Zimna wojna (2018)
Dir: Paweł Pawlikowski
As someone who has seen a little of the director’s past work, I feel like I was suitably prepared to get the most from this film, as it is in a similar style, one that Pawlikowski is seemingly perfecting.
Musical director Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is preserving and bringing Polish folk songs to a wider audience, while doing so he meets young singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) who fascinates him and their love develops, only to be hampered by the socio-political situation of their era and obstacles they face over time.
I’m glad I had seen the director’s previous film ‘Ida’ because this is not wholly dissimilar so I had an idea of what to expect from the film, not just in the distinctive visual style but also the tone and historical setting, otherwise, I think I might have struggled to enjoy this as it might have caught me a little off guard. Essentially I’m not even sure if ‘enjoy’ is the right word for me to use to describe how I felt, though I fully appreciated the exceptional filmmaking, great performances and skillfully told story, it isn’t particularly joyful. Though Wiktor at times refers to Zula as the love of his life, I wouldn’t say the romantic qualities of the narrative are what primarily stand out.
Paweł Pawlikowski is favouring the 1.37:1 aspect ratio in black and white, especially as it evokes Polish films of the era, working very well for ‘Ida’ and now for this. Teaming up again with cinematographer Łukasz Żal they make full use of the squarer frame, composing shots in a way that’s now considered unusual, but really holds attention. Many frames are so beautifully put together they would make gorgeous artwork, shots of people, in particular, look like excellent portrait photographs as the ratio lends itself to human subjects more than landscapes. This works well as the story is particularly strong, the focus is on the characters, not on beautiful locations and sweeping wide vistas. Foreground and background are both prominent in the frame at times, as where characters are in relation to a crowd or someone else tells us a lot about what they’re thinking or feeling. When locations are noticeable, the ratio adds an imposing nature to architecture, buildings seem to loom large over the people, dwarfing even crowds, walls become presciently enclosing as they’re flanked by the vertical black bars of the screen.
Music is integral to the narrative, with the lead characters meeting through their musical abilities. As they lose touch with their roots, symbolised through the distance from the folk music with which the film opens, we see their emotional wellbeing and their relationship also deteriorate. It’s a link that doesn’t go unnoticed, with one particular song being repeated in various forms throughout, starting as a woeful folk song with lyrics that initially serve as unknown foreshadowing, becoming increasingly pertinent to the situation.
I really appreciated this film, the skill with which it is made, and the striking visuals. To go more into why I would hesitate to say I ‘enjoyed’ it would risk spoilers. It’s a tragic love story, with equally interesting characters and historical setting, that along with the spectacular cinematography made it a captivating viewing experience, though not necessarily an uplifting one.
‘Cold War’ has garnered much praise worldwide, winning the Golden Lion in Poland, a handful of European Film Awards, best director at Cannes and is now competing for 4 BAFTA and 3 Oscar trophies. In the Foreign Language categories, it looks like it will be beaten by ‘Roma’, so the best chance it has at winning is probably in Cinematography in which it excels.