Cold War

Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski is up for Best Director at this year’s Oscars for his film “Cold War” – a love story set against the backdrop of the Soviet propaganda machine of the 1940s through the 1960s.  The cold war setting is hard-hitting and sharp.  My issue is with the lack of development of the love story.

The plot

Veteran Polish actor Tomasz Kot plays Wiktor, one of two musical directors of an academy in Warsaw whose mission is to make star performers of young rural Polish singers and dancers.  After two years of intense grooming and rehearsal, the academy premieres its work to a fascinated and appreciative crowd.  One of the early signees of the academy is Zula, played by the beautiful and talented Joanna Kulig.  Wiktor sets his eyes on Zula at her audition, and next thing we know, they are consummating their relationship behind closed doors.

Lack of development

Cold War” features a tight 90-minute running time, and Pawlikowski could have fleshed out his original screenplay by easing into the love story.  Never do we see Wiktor and Zula fall in love; only that they are in love.  In other words, their courtship is omitted from the film – to its great detriment.  Everything that follows is based upon Wiktor’s and Zula’s yearning for one another.  Yet we never feel this desire, because their love was merely “introduced” to us rather than cultivated.

West vs. East

As Polish officials thrust a pro-Stalin slant on much of the academy’s performance material, Wiktor longs for the Western leanings of Paris, and plans an escape with Zula.  Unfortunately, she feels more comfortable remaining in her homeland.  The two leads eventually take other partners, but continue to meet up with one another throughout the intervening years – ultimately cutting a record in Paris in the early ‘60s. 

Best scene

The various settings and overall look of “Cold War” (shot in glorious black and white) are spot-on.  I particularly enjoyed a scene set in a Paris nightclub in 1955 in which Wiktor continues to woo Zula to the creative freedom of the Western lifestyle.  Seemingly uninterested, Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” comes on the jukebox – and Zula reacts to her newfound love of the burgeoning American rock scene by dancing with multiple partners during the two-and-a-half minute run time of the song. 

Cinematographer Lukasz Zal shoots the entire scene at eye level, giving it a comparable feel to Mike Nichols’ “Carnal Knowledge,” in which we see Candice Bergen dance with both male leads during one song.  It’s a powerful depiction of the loosening morals of the day in the West.  Yet Zula never feels as complacent away from the more comfortable confines of the Eastern lifestyle she’s used to.

Reminiscent of “La La Land”

Cold War” is a fascinating premise for a film, and Pawlikowski essentially succeeds.  I simply wish we were privy to the love felt by the two leads.  Title aside, this is a love story at its core.  It is reminiscent of Damien Chazelle’s 2016 classic “La La Land,” in that two protagonists are brought together through a mutual love of music.  And even though their careers take them in separate directions, they continue to long for one another years after their initial courtship.  But in “La La Land,” we felt the passion between the two leads.  I wish I could say the same for “Cold War.”

Andy Ray’s reviews also appear on

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