Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig simmer as musicians in love in Cold War. Photo by Lukasz Bak

Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig simmer as musicians in love in Cold War. Photo by Lukasz Bak

The Warm Musical Romance of ‘Cold War’

The gorgeous Polish tale of love behind the Iron Curtain would be a layup for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in a non-‘Roma’ year.

I saw Cold War last summer at a film festival in Ukraine, where I was on an awards jury. When it concluded, I stood up and declared aloud to no one in particular, “We have just seen the winner of the next Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.”

Of course I didn’t actually do that. Who am I to stand up and make pronouncements in English in a Ukrainian movie theater? (But I did mutter it to myself.)

Cold War has all the attributes of a classic Oscar-winner in that category: It’s accessible; it’s serious but also deeply romantic; it’s got political overtones; and it’s gorgeous to look at. The only problem with my prediction is that I didn’t anticipate the arrival of Roma, a knockout that’s been winning critics’ awards by the handful. One pronouncement I will make to no one in particular is that Roma stands a good chance of becoming the first movie to win both Best Foreign Language Film and the biggest prize of all, Best Picture.

Nevertheless: See Cold War. This arresting Polish film tracks a tumultuous romance that hopscotches across Europe after World War II, beginning in Poland in 1949. A musician named Wiktor (lanky, cool Tomasz Kot) travels through the countryside searching for authentic Polish folk music. He meets the wildly talented Zula (Joanna Kulig), and brings her into his folk troupe. Over the years, the simmering attraction between Wiktor and Zula is at the mercy of the shifting whims of Poland’s Communist overlords, who are less interested in artistic expression than in glorifying government programs. Borys Szyc is excellent at a Soviet flunky who wonders why Wiktor can’t create more song-and-dance numbers about tractors and Five-Year economic plans.

Writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski (who already has a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for 2014’s compelling Ida) arranges the film in brief, crisp pieces; the story covers a huge amount of geographical and emotional territory while clocking in at under 90 minutes. Wiktor and Zula are repeatedly separated by politics — he plays jazz in Paris, she tours as a star singer behind the Iron Curtain — but their connection remains strong, and slightly mad. Along with the off-center black-and-white cinematography, Pawlikoski’s most effective tool here is the way music provides the pulse of the story. From folk to classical to brand-new rock and roll, music underlies everything. Music is how Wiktor and Zula find meaning in each other — it’s their voice just as much as the dialogue is (if you’ve thought there was no new way to energize the old Bill Haley chestnut “Rock Around the Clock,” prepare to have your nerve endings electrified). When the music stops, so does their reason for being.

The film’s controlled style is almost too tidy at times, but the music and the actors keep it alive and kicking. Kot is every inch the European intellectual, like a road-company version of Daniel Day-Lewis, and Kulig is an explosive presence — she wields attitude like an ice pick. Instead of making a generalized statement about the tragedy of the Cold War, Pawlikowski roots that tragedy in two specific and vital characters. By the end, their story has become a kind of modern folklore, like the music that brought them together in the first place.

Cold War

Opens Friday, January 18 | SIFF Cinema Egyptian | | Rated R

More in Film

Mads Mikkelsen stars in Seattle’s current weather… I mean, ‘Arctic.’ Photo by Helen Sloan/Bleecker Street
Mads Mikkelsen Delivers a Tour de Force in ‘Arctic’

The near-silent performance makes this survival film transcend the genre.

The upbeat everyman Emmet remains cheerful even in post-apocalyptic settings. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Everything’s Still Awesome

‘The Lego Movie 2’ builds on the success of the original with more humorous pop culture-drenched adventure.

In a fairer world, little film like ‘The Rider’ would have a chance at Oscars gold. Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
Who We Would’ve Nominated For 2019 Academy Awards

Narrow defintions of “Oscar worthy films” and Hollywood politics shut out some of the year’s best. Let’s change that.

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly take the stage as Laurel and Hardy. 
Photo by Nick Wall/Sony Pictures Classics
‘Stan & Ollie’ and the Art of Playing Comedic Geniuses

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly carry the story of legendary duo Laurel and Hardy.

Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig simmer as musicians in love in <em>Cold</em> <em>War</em>. Photo by Lukasz Bak
The Warm Musical Romance of ‘Cold War’

The gorgeous Polish tale of love behind the Iron Curtain would be a layup for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in a non-‘Roma’ year.

KiKi Layne (Tish) and Stephan James (Fonny) star in ‘If Beale Street Could Talk.’ Photo by Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures
Meandering Along ‘Beale Street’

Barry Jenkins follows up ‘Moonlight’ with the textured racial mood piece, ‘If Beale Street Could Talk.’

Jason Momoa and Patrick Wilson square off in ‘Aquaman.’ Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
‘Aquaman’ Can’t Figure Out Which Wave to Surf

The latest DC Comic movie struggles to find a balance between keeping a straight face and having fun.

Emily Blunt takes on the role of the magical nanny in Mary Poppins Returns. 
Photo courtesy Walt Disney Studios
‘Mary Poppins Returns’ Boasts Nostalgic Musical Charm

The first soundtrack album I ever knew deeply was Mary Poppins, and… Continue reading

Spider-Folks from various dimensions come together in ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.’ Image courtesy Columbia Pictures/Sony
‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ Gets Caught in Its Own Web

The animated comic book gets stuck up on its multiverse fan service.

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone battle for the queen’s attention in <em>The Favourite</em>. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Twentieth Century Fox
Black Comedy with a Regal Veneer

Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz bring catty rivalry to the queen’s court in ‘The Favourite.’

Yalitza Aparicio (left) makes her feature debut as Cleo, the central character in <em>Roma</em>. Photo by Carlos Somonte
‘Roma’ Makes an Epic Film Out of an Intimate Story

Alfonso Cuarón’s memories and vision guide the Spanish-language Oscar front-runner about a young housekeeper in 1970s Mexico.

Taron Egerton (Robin) and Jamie Foxx (John) take another crack at the classic in Robin Hood. Photo by Larry Horricks
The Arrows Miss Their Mark in ‘Robin Hood’

The legend’s latest rendition can’t overcome its modern smirky tone and bland lead actor.