It takes seconds to see why Cold War will be a frontrunner for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film at the next Academy Awards. There’s an undeniable immediacy to the film’s boldness that strikes you from its opening frames and leaves you rapt for the entirety of its 90-minute run time.
Set amidst the backdrop of a Europe divided by politics and philosophy, Cold War is a love story dense with tragedy and life. Despite what you might gleam from its title, it is not a film that explores the machinations of the decades long international conflict that held the world—Europe, especially—captive by the machinations of conflicting super powers. The titular cold war is, rather, one of the heart, as two people, Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) spend years dancing around their love for each other.
Though serving as a powerful metaphor for how the people of Europe were affected by the decades of turmoil caused by the Cold War, the film’s heart lies, well, in the heart. Writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski crafts a tale of the futility of fighting against love, especially when that love is entirely out of our control.
Wiktor works as a musicologist in Poland, doing his best to find and archive examples of regional folk music and dances before the world changes too much and the history is lost forever. His works are a way to both catalogue and celebrate the folk-traditions of his country, which he honors by helping to establish a school/troupe to continuing preserving his national heritage. There he meets Zula, a talented but fiery young woman who captures his heart. As the Iron Curtain begins to rise, and the troupe’s purview begins to change, Wiktor decides to defect to the west as Zula decides to stay. In the years that follow, meetings both chance and planned continue to pull Wiktor and Zula towards each other and away from the lives they each desire.
With its stark, black and white cinematography and haunting music (Cold War skirts the edges of the musical genre without becoming a musical itself), Pawlikowski packs a lifetime of emotional punches into a succinct, digestible form. Each meeting finds the film’s star-crossed lovers in new positions as they flirt with the possibilities of Together Forever. A culture wall may separate the two, preventing either from making the commitments the other wants, but their heart’s pull is powerful and their slow waltz to tragedy is breathtaking to behold.
Depressing though it might be for a holiday release, Cold War is still a stunning cinematic achievement rife with subtext and nuance that will impact and move you long after the lights come up and you go home. The raw, emotional pull of Cold War is undeniable, making it a must see for fans of cinema the world over.
Cold War is now playing in select theaters.