SPOILER ALERT: While I will stay away from overt spoilers, you may want to watch this film prior to reading the full review. It is still available to watch in some theaters, and it will be available for streaming on Amazon in March. You may want to jump to the bottom of this post for a quick note on the film’s content, but besides that I encourage you to watch the film before reading this review.
The joy that comes from getting caught up in a love story is one of the great gifts that cinema can give to an audience. We all have our favorite on screen couples, and after watching Cold War in the theater I believe that Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) have instantly become one of mine.
The film’s title will give you hints as to the ways that director Pawel Pawlikowski unravels the love story between Zula and Wiktor. This is not your conventional movie story of love. There are fits and starts, and sadness is just as much of a factor as passion, though this film is not wanting for passion in the slightest.
The story takes place across postwar Europe. For a film that only comes in at an 89-minute runtime, this film covers so much ground. Part of Pawlikowski’s genius is that so much of Zula and Wiktor’s love story is left outside the frame. That may sound like a critique at first, but I don’t mean it to be one. In other hands, maybe this strategy would falter. But Pawlikowski gives us just what we need and leaves the rest to the imagination.
The story begins as Wiktor is searching rural Poland for singers and dancers to be part of his traveling band of artists. Wiktor is an artist himself, and he is fixated on his art. That is, until he finds Zula amid the many auditioners. He is instantly smitten, and so are we as the audience. Their love story begins, and it will lead them across many miles and borders together.
Kulig gives the standout performance, though Kot gives a fine turn as well. But it is Kulig who absolutely jumps off the screen and carries the film’s storyline. In her review of the film for RogerEbert.com, critic Tomris Laffly calls Kulig “an instant, Marilyn-Monroe-meets-Liv Ullmann-esque vision.” That is impossibly high praise, and yet here it is absolutely warranted. She brings zest and a detached sadness that pulls you in and invests you in the story. You want to know what will happen to these star-crossed lovers.
Amid many sociopolitcal shifts in Poland and the other European countries in which they find themselves, Zula and Wiktor always have a connection. They are separated, then they find each other again. Things change, and yet their love remains.
The film’s wonderful black-and-white cinematography by Lucasz Zal supports the sometimes bleak but always moving storyline. One scene in particular - set in a bombed-out church - showcases the unique power of this film. It finds the passion and romance within the cold darkness of the wars that rage between us. As Zula and Wiktor find themselves again, so we too find our ability to reconnect across space and time.
This all brings us to the film’s ending, which is the absolutely perfect note on which to conclude this love story. It is sad, and yet it is also eternally hopeful. This ending gave me chills, and it is one of the best film endings I can remember in quite some time. It had me leaving the theater on a high, something to which every film should aspire.
This is not a conventional love story, but it is one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. Cold War is clearly one of the year’s best films, and I think its stature will only grow over time.
Note on content: Zula wears some revealing outfits, and the passionate love story between her and Wiktor is the film’s main storyline. There are two sex scenes in the film. The first shows thrusting and moaning, but both characters are fully clothed. The second contains nudity, but it takes place in a shadowy room and the camera is far away from the characters. There is mild profanity throughout, and many scenes take place in bars with drinking and smoking.