Polish director Pawel Pawilkowski won the Best Director Prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival for Cold War, and the film has been nominated for three Oscars: best cinematography, best directing, and best foreign language film of the year. The black and white flick tells the story of two lovers, Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), whose near-train-wreck of a relationship spans 15 years and multiple countries. The two characters were based on Pawilkowski’s parents, who also had an on-again, off-again relationship.
The film begins in Poland, 1949, and Wiktor is auditing singers for a folk music ensemble to tour the Soviet Union. Zula auditions and the two are almost immediately smitten. Over the next decade and a half the two separate and reunite, only to be separated again—but through it all they share music.
There’s a particular song that’s carried throughout the film in five different versions. While it provides continuity, it also gets entangled with the various pressures exerted on the couple. Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) is some sort of official overseeing the ensemble and he keeps making the act more nationalist. (At one point the ensemble sings a number dedicated to Stalin in front of his portrait.) When Wiktor and Zula are in Paris, she sings a version of the song translated into French by a former lover of Wiktor’s. Zula doesn’t like the poetic translation, but it may have more to do with jealousy than anything else.
Kulig was the perfect choice for Zula, who’s described in the film as having “something special.” Kulig perfectly captures that quality and delivers some great singing performances as well. Kot’s Wiktor plays off of her nicely, and Szyc is very believable as a socialist bureaucrat. He just looks the part, really. But the real star here is cinematographer Łukasz Żal. No kidding he got an Oscar nod. Every shot is gorgeous—the lighting, the composition. For the cinematography alone, you should see this film.
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