Reviewed by Deborah Klugman

It’s not often you see a film about a love affair minus the bells and whistles — the soaring score, the ersatz passion— that taint so many earnest efforts, especially American ones. But Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War, opening at selected theaters in Los Angeles next week, is that stunning exception.

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Sprawled over several decades, the story turns loosely on the relationship between Pawlikowski’s parents — not in its details so much as in the fundamental nature of their bond: two people who desired each other intensely, craved the other’s presence in their lives, but could not stay together or make each other happy. That sounds common enough, except that Pawlikowski’s characters, both gifted musicians, are so charismatic and complex that there’s nothing commonplace about his film, which warps through the historical tapestry of mid-20th century Europe, with its warring ideologies of East and West.

It begins in Poland during the era of Stalinist domination. When we meet Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), he and his companion and lover (Agata Kulesza) are plowing through snow drifts in the Polish countryside on a cultural mission — to record the folk music of the Polish peasantry and compile it for posterity. At some point, they are commissioned to put together a troupe of talented young singers and dancers. It is during the audition process that Wiktor encounters the teenage Zula (Joanna Kulig), an intense young woman on parole for, it’s rumored, killed her father — a fact she validates after Wiktor gets to know her. The alarm bells sound right there, but though he hears them, the smitten Wiktor ignores them and never looks back.

The troupe becomes a tool for Soviet propaganda, anathema to Wiktor, an accomplished pianist, conductor, and composer, but of no consequence to the youthful apolitical Zula, one of its stars. The lovers’ first break comes when they are on tour and have a chance to escape from behind the Iron Curtain. Wiktor waits in vain for Zula at the appointed time and place, but she fails to arrive and he travels alone to Paris where he establishes himself as a musician in a jazz club.

Suffice it to say that Zula eventually joins him, after which they are back and forth, together and then apart, over decades, with Wiktor risking — and ultimately enduring – a brutal incarceration in pursuit of his obsessive love.

Like Ida, Pawlikowski’s last film, Cold War is framed in stunning black and white, a contrast to the erotic sizzle that practically sears through the screen. The music encompasses Polish folk, classic Chopin and bluesy jazz, and during the Soviet sequences, dynamite ensemble dancing.

Throughout, there’s the lurking specter of the repressive state; in Wiktor in particular, you see an artist torn between the passion to be free and the bondage brought on by his compulsive desire for one particular woman. With Kulig as Zula, you understand why; this actress sizzles, as both a rural peasant girl and the sultry torch singer her character eventually becomes.

Cold War opens at the Laemmle Royal on December 21 and plays at various Laemmle theaters through January.


  • 2018 Best director, 71st Cannes Film Festival,
  • 2018 National Board of Review – Best Foreign Language Film
  • 2018 New York Film Critics Circle – Best Foreign Language Film

About this film:

Cold War is a passionate love story about a man and a woman who meet in the ruins of post-war Poland. With vastly different backgrounds and temperaments, they are fatefully mismatched and yet condemned to each other.

Set against the background of the Cold War in 1950s Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia and Paris, it’s the tale of a couple separated by politics, character flaws and unfortunate twists of fate — an impossible love story in impossible times.

Opening at:

Royal on Dec 21st
Playhouse 7 on Jan 11th
Town Center 5 on Jan 11th
NoHo 7 on Jan 18th
Claremont 5 on Jan 25th
Glendale on Jan 25th

Rated R This film is subtitled
Runtime: 88 min
Language: Croatian, French, German, Italian, Polish, Russian

Copyright © 2019 Tracey Paleo – Gia On The Move

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