Brandon Shillingford, Contributing Writer
In a year filled with spectacular period pieces, director Paweł Pawlikowski’s “Cold War” — a follow-up to his Oscar-winning film “Ida” — stands out as a haunting and powerful love letter to his parents’ relationship and an immaculate portrait of passion under the shadow of political oppression.
“Cold War” tells the story of Wiktor and Zula, two artists struggling to find meaning in a post-war Poland. The two meet and gradually fall into a passionate and dangerous affair that blossoms over two decades. The relationship slowly begins to tear at the seams of both their lives.
Throughout the film, the two fall in and out of love, hurt each other countless times and leave one another with seemingly no intention of ever returning. But they always find their way back to each other. This is where one of the major strengths of “Cold War” comes into play: the performances of its two leads.
Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot give remarkable performances as Zula and Wiktor, and Kulig particularly shines. Their chemistry feels so authentic and raw, resembling that of Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca.” Whenever the two share the screen, it is absolutely mesmerizing.
Pawlikowski asks you to give yourself to the film and fall in love with these two, yet constantly question their morals and feelings for each other. And because of the strength of the performances, screenplay and direction, it works flawlessly. And the extraordinary direction on the part of Pawlikowski makes him the real star of “Cold War.”
He commands complete control of the camera; within the first 10 seconds of the film, you recognize his grand vision for the world he builds and those who live in it. With stunning black-and-white cinematography, and an always welcome 4-3 letterboxed aspect ratio, every shot is framed perfectly and exudes a unique sense of ambiance. It also serves as a sharp contrast to colorful and exciting love stories we’ve come to know, with its harsh color palette and deliberate pacing.
If there’s any problem with the film, it’s that it should have been at least a half an hour longer. “Cold War” has a total runtime of 85 minutes, making it Pawlikowski’s shortest film. It ends abruptly, following a major event that takes place separating the two lovers once again. There’s a time jump that skips through several major moments that are mentioned, but never actually seen. The entire film is paced so evenly, and we get to know Wiktor and Zula over that time, so a jump changing their situation so significantly is noticeably jarring.
When watching “Cold War,” there’s an unmistakable passion the art form. Pawlikowski and his cast are so committed to the film, and it comes out in the most unexpected moments. It is clearly a personal and intimate film for Pawlikowski, and he taps into so many different facets of interpersonal relationships.
Instead of following the lead of other period romances, it challenges the idea that love is simple and fun and asks the audience to reflect on their own experiences. It asks the question, “Why is it the ones we love that hurt us the most?” “Cold War” is a breathtaking masterwork and cements Pawlikowski’s place as one of the greatest auteurs of our time. Watching it reminds you of the power of film.