Once again, as we approach the Oscar ceremony, the Best Foreign Language Film category remains one of categories I have the least exposure to (aside from the shorts whose compilation releases are still to come). It’s also the one that will inevitably be left unfilled by the time the ceremony starts up regardless of my efforts. If anything, though, this year has actually proven more conducive to pre-Oscar viewing as I was only able to see On Body and Soul before the ceremony this year while I have already seen Roma and now today’s title. What Cold War also has in common with Roma (besides both being in glorious black and white) is that both have escaped from the single category most non-English language films are kept to as it has earned nominations for Best Director (for Paweł Pawlikowski) and Best Cinematography (for Łukasz Żal), two of the numerous categories Roma is competing in.
The visual style is the first thing that stands out about Cold War as aside from the black and white, it’s filmed in 4:3, creating a very distinct look from the sprawling Roma and one that is far more stark. Unlike that epic feeling film, while it spans a far longer distance in time, it is also a breezy 85 minutes and approaches things with a Yasujirō Ozu level of skipping about over certain key moments. It shouldn’t have to be mentioned every time it happens, but I am appreciative of a film that does not pad out its length and the jumping about is handled well enough that things remain understandable while also making for a more distinctive style. As for whether it serves the characters well, that is a more complicated question.
Cold War is Pawlikowski’s follow up to his Oscar winning film Ida and is at its heart a romance between two characters Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig). It starts with Wiktor as the composer searching post-World War II Poland with his partner and a party stooge for talent to join an authentic folk musical of sorts. It’s in this quest that he meets Zula, a talented singer with a mysterious and checkered past and becomes instantly drawn to her. There’re so many boring and expected ways this could proceed, heading in blind the most obvious being that this would be a Cold War era thriller. Thankfully, the movie swerves and avoids those clichés even as the Cold War looms and serves as a potent force throughout.
Music serves as an important reflection of the characters throughout. The noble intentions of the musical piece by piece being pulled toward communist propaganda while Zula especially feels deeply tied to the sense of identity, she gets from the music she performs even as her first song is co-opted from that of another. The film doesn’t reduce either side of the Cold War to heroes and villains, its biggest critique instead is saved for the loss of identity it has caused, namely on that of the Polish people, literally and metaphorically. It’s also great to have a music heavy film where the music is just pleasing to listen to. It’s all fantastically filmed, the stage scenes are dazzling with some wonderful costuming that both looks great and doubles as reflections on the growing change in the production over time, while others serving as more expertly capturing the mood of the scene.
The central romance is a bit iffier. The age gap and circumstances surrounding how it started certainly have me struggling to really get into it from a personal standpoint, but it is here that the narrative jumps hurt the most. The film did far more telling than showing when it came to their supposedly epic love and too much of the movie hinged on something that I just didn’t buy. I can’t blame the actors as they do great work. Kulig especially manages to really develop what could have been a mystery box character, once again, some great costuming helping here. It’s much more a reflection of the writing and the coldness with which they are often treated.
I may not have believed in that aspect wholly, but it’s the one real misstep for the film. Otherwise, it’s an immaculately constructed and layered film that sets itself apart from the its ilk through the structure.