I don’t usually call out the music in a movie unless it’s a musical — or, as in the case of A Star Is Born, barely short of a musical because it’s about singers who are performing original music. In the case of Cold War, one of its many pleasures is its music, which features far more than expected. It doesn’t quite veer into even “almost a musical” territory, but the female lead, Zula (a captivating Joanna Kulig) is indeed a singer. It’s how she meets her star-crossed lover, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot, mostly stoic), as he is a music director and she cons her way into a group of young musicians scouted from the Polish peasantry in the early 1950s.
These two are mismatched, their backgrounds are incompatible, they cannot let each other go, they cannot stand each other, they are doomed to love each other beyond all others even as their lives dissect intersect, though many years, well into the mid-sixties. This is an incredible time span to cover in a run time of all of 89 minutes, but somehow director and co-writer Pawel Pawlekowski (Ida) manages it.
From the Polish folk music beginning, the narrative moves to Berlin to Paris to Yugoslavia and back to Poland again, Zula’s career as a singer and Wikto’s career as a musician figuring prominently every step of the way. There are moments when the music subtly reveals itself to be subtly quite pretty, even when Zula is merely singing scales.
As you might have guessed, the Cold War is the literal backdrop of this romance that somehow manages to be epic even within a brief run time. If Cold War proves anything, it’s that a movie has no need for en endless run time to convey true depth. Granted, this is still a stylized foreign film, shot in black and white no less, that will test some short attention spans. It’s also a feast for the eyes of anyone who appreciates a striking and start aesthetic, as even without color, Cold War is beautifully shot.
I kept expecting something more overtly political to the story, but Pawlekowski keeps the narrative grounded firmly in romance, with Eastern European sociopolitical issues merely as its framework, or its lens. Perhaps there is a more overt metaphor at play here, a bit of food for the pretensions of film studies majors. I did not find anything particularly cold about the fire between these two, though — burning passions that veer between romance and resentment.
And then Zula is singing into a microphone at a club, and the sequence is captivating. She drinks a little too much, jumps into a crowd dancing to “Rock Around the Clock,” and the choreography and camera work are impressive. I can’t say I found Wiktor to be the most compelling character; he spends a lot of time staring expressionlessly. He looks good, though. That said, literally everyone in this movie does.
The ending takes a turn that will stay with me a while, especially with a uniquely perfect final line of dialogue. It seems to be the only fate for these two, who forge entire lives independent of each other and yet keep returning to each other, that makes sense. Cold War didn’t quite speak to me with as much profundity as it evidently is with most critics, but it certainly has a sensibility all its own, a point of view from a time and place that reverberates beyond its own confines. It somehow turns a universal concept into a singular experience.