It’s not a Hollywood movie. That’s clear from the start. Cold War (2018), the feature film made by the Polish-born director, Pawel Pawlikowski, is in black-and-white. The characters have names like Wiktor, Kaczmarek and Mazurek, and the actors include Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot and Borys Szyc to give just a few from a large cast of characters. There isn’t a James, a Barbara or a Marilyn among them, though Kulig turns in a credible performance as a kind of Polish Marilyn Monroe who makes her way up the ladder of success and then throws it all away.
No American or British director has made a movie titled “Cold War,” but many American and British directors have taken slices from the big Cold War pie and hurled them at the big screen, some with logic and beauty. Think of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), which is set in Vienna right after the end of World War II and that stars Orson Welles as Harry Lime, the American hustler and human rat out to make a profit at everyone else’s expense.
Think also of Stanley Kubrik’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) with Peter Sellers, George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden, which persuaded audiences to laugh at the nuclear apocalypse and not cower under it.
Pawel Pawlikowski was born in Warsaw in 1957, when the Cold War was very hot, indeed. The Russians launched Sputnik in 1957 and the space race was off and running. Pawlikowski left Poland at the age of 14, later attended Oxford University and made his first movie, From Moscow to Pietushki with Benny Yerofeyev, in 1990.
The Cold War has long haunted him. His film, Cold War, offers a Polish take on the mega conflict between the two superpowers, the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R., that mushroomed after the end of World War II and that ended, according to some American politicians, with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, which now seems like a long time ago and another era.
Revisionist historians such as D. F. Fleming, the author of The Cold War and Its Origins, 1917-1960, argue that the Cold War began when the Western powers tried to throttle the Bolshevik Revolution and prevent Communism from spreading like the plague. Contemporary pundits and journalists insist that the Cold War is alive and doing well, thank you, despite the seeming bromance between Trump and Putin, two thugs recycled from the junk heap of authoritarian personalities as old as Stalin and Joe McCarthy and as new as themselves.
Pawlikowski’s film has already won international recognition, including the award for best director at Cannes. It has been nominated for an Oscar as the best foreign film of 2018. Cold War has a lot going for it, including the romance between a dark, tall handsome man and a gorgeous, impulsive woman who love each other and betray each another, break up with one another and get back together again. Their relationship is as crazy as the Cold War itself. Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot play two lovers who can’t detach from one another, though their relationship is corrosive and though they wander back and forth from one side of the so-called “Iron Curtain” to the other and from East to West and back to East.
Pawlikowski uses music as a vehicle to tell his Cold War story, which doesn’t take sides, much as his lovers don’t affiliate permanently either with capitalism or Eastern bloc socialism.
Cold War moves from Polish folk music to western jazz and then to rock n’ roll. Each new musical wave carries the plot forward. Each one feels surprising as it unfolds on the screen, but at the end when one looks back at the movie, the music feels inevitable and predictable. Of course, there’s going to be jazz and then rock ‘n’ roll in a movie about a female singer and a male piano player and conductor in the 1940s and 1950s. But the music is also energetic and worth hearing.
Cold War offers stark Eastern European settings. The language is mostly Polish, with English subtitles and the pace is much slower than blockbuster Hollywood films. But it does have a Hollywood ending. Zula and Wiktor come together once again. Still, it’s not clear if they’re going to live with one another, or commit suicide and cross the boundary that divides life from death. If nothing else, they’re people who break boundaries.
I recommend the film. Joanna Kulig is beautiful, sexy and smart as Kulig. Tomasz Kot is crafty, creative and romantic as Wiktor. The images on screen are enticing and the camera work is often dazzling. But the big draw is Pawlikowski’s handling of the Cold War, which has no precise beginning, no clear ending in sight, and that’s always ripe for artistic interpretation.
Viewers like me, and my peers who remember the deep-seated American fear of Communism will relate to the story instinctively. Those who came of age in the 1980s, when Reagan revived the Cold War, will likely remember the high jinks of that era and vault into the picture.
Members of those two generations and younger viewers will also identify with the characters who try to save their souls and their integrity as artists, and who are compromised by power politics and the ravages of the Cold War that nobody won.