Cold War (2018) by Pawel Pawlikowski
Review by Zach Dennis
Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War was one I immediately wrote down once I saw the TIFF schedule as his previous film, Ida, was one of my favorites of that year. Cold War takes place right after the fall of Berlin and the end of the second World War. A song and dance academy is being opened in Poland as a way to establish a nation spirit for the country after the end of the war with Wiktor and his partner running the music and teaching. The idea is to find songs and dances from the lower class around Poland and create a show built around these known tunes that exemplify the country.
Among the students is Zula, who is immediately noticed to be a bit of a rebel-rouser and someone who has been labeled as trouble after being accused of killing her father and running away. Her talent catches the attention of Wiktor and what begins as tutoring becomes a love affair.
It doesn’t last too long as the shift from celebrating Poland’s national heritage withers away with the emergence of communism and the power of the Soviet Union in the area and Wiktor poses an escape from the academy while they’re touring in Berlin in order to start a new life in Paris. As most love stories go, he shows up — she doesn’t — and we pick up years later in Paris.
Pawlikowski continues the story in a Brief Encounter way, picking up the two characters as their lives intertwine in France and Yugoslav over the years following his desertion of the academy.
Cold War didn’t immediately hook me with the same intensity as Ida — partly because of the somewhat predatory, under-developed nature of their initial courtship (an aspect that seems to appear for the sake of following the long line) and the fact that we lose some of the political context until near the end of the movie.
What was interesting about Cold War at first was this desire to establish national glory after World War II and how quickly that can change when power and money become involved in the scheme. It also plays with this idea of the interwoven nature of art and politics in a propaganda nature — linking less with work by someone like Dinesh D’Souza or Michael Moore, and more with the flag-waving salute finishes of films such as Lone Survivor or American Sniper, which play more as two-hour-long patriotic validations than actual narratives.
The love story at Cold War’s center does become more complex and interesting as the story moves along with Wiktor’s insistence in instilling a singing career for (girl) adding on to the discomfort of how they met.
But in the end, the way to gauge how much the film will affect you is how much you’re moved by this love story as it meets its tragic end. I heard the movie described as “broken people trying to fall in love in a broken world” and that does describe the nature of his romance as questionable morality withstanding, the tightening of this section of Europe by Stalin and the Soviet Union does add more pressure. But it does come back around to your investment in the characters, and while I’ll adhere to the assessment that they are broken people (with a degree of empathy for both of them), they also are too volatile and never offer any small moments of tenderness or genuine affection that shows that an actual spark was there to ignite from.
In the end, it feels like two broken people forcing love for the sake of survival rather than trying, and it led me to give up disappointingly on Cold War.