Those of us who lived through the Cold War remember it as a time dominated by the ever-present fear of mutually assured destruction between two superpowers. In Pawel Pawlikowski’s brilliant, engrossing film, it’s two people whose assured mutual destruction drives the narrative, and their story of love, betrayal, and twisted devotion is a thing of dark beauty—a portrait of a relationship as complex and passionate as has been seen on screen in recent years.

Inspired by his own parents’ story (even going so far as to give his mother’s and father’s names to the lead characters), Pawlikowski chronicles the decade-plus relationship between Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), set against the backdrop of 1950s Eastern Europe. As the film opens, Wiktor is travelling throughout Poland scouting local talent for a state-run, propaganda-heavy song and dance ensemble. Zula auditions for a spot, posing as a peasant girl though she is actually on the run after attacking her abusive father. She immediately captivates Wiktor, and they start a relationship, setting in motion the film’s lengthy downward spiral.

A few years later, when the ensemble is performing in Berlin, Wiktor tells Zula of his plan to defect and convinces her to join him. She never meets him at the border, however, and he crosses alone. Over the course of the following decade, it’s more of the same as the star-crossed couple comes together and falls apart again and again, and each time it’s more and more heartbreaking.

Co-written by Pawlikowski with Janusz Głowacki and Piotr Borkowski, Cold Warnever flinches in its honest and brutal portrayal of a harsh and self-destructive love affair. It’s a complex and thought-provoking story that—despite our knowing in our gut that it’s not headed for a magical and harmonious happy-ever-after in a field of daffodils—nevertheless hooks us in and refuses to let go.

Shot in stunning black and white by cinematographer Łukasz Żal, Cold War relies on rich textures and stark contrasts to illustrate its story, whether we’re in a stoic Eastern Bloc performance hall, at a snowy border checkpoint or in a seedy jazz bar in 1950s Paris. Each destination has its own distinct feel and character and is as much a character as the humans that inhabit it.

Kulig, who earned acclaim for her role in the 2012 Polish film Elles, imbues Zula with such complexity and passion that it’s stunning she hasn’t become a worldwide name yet. She absolutely fills the screen with her presence and is well-deserving of the handful of international Best Actress awards she’s already picked up.

Pawlikowski has created a sublime masterpiece of dark and twisted fantasy, an ode to love and devotion that will break your heart as much as it makes you appreciate what two hours in a movie theater can provide. Cold War is easily one of the best of the year.


5/5 stars