The bad news is that you really have to like traditional Polish music to enjoy this movie; the good news is that, as the film taught me, traditional Polish music is really freaking cool. I think that’s one of the main things that Director Powel Powlikowski wanted to impart with this picture. As interesting as the character interactions may be, this film really is about the music. One of those movies that does so much with its songs that it's practically an honorary musical. You may say that you’ve seen enough movies like this before. Yes, but not with traditional Polish music.
I suppose that “Cold War” is technically a love story, but, true to its title, it’s a cold one at that. The story follows the relationship of seasoned pianist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), and rising singer Zula (Joanna Kulig), as they attempt to achieve their artistic endeavors in a country ravaged by the war from which the movie derives its name. Unlike many love stories, however, this one contains little psychological exploration or otherwise subjective storytelling motifs. The script is almost voyeuristic, as you really just observe the actions of these two lovers with no insight into the mental reasoning behind it all.
And yet, Wiktor and Zula are portrayed so intimately before us. It’s that style of cinematography wherein the audience is placed in the midst of the scene. You are standing by these characters, sitting next to them, talking to them, eating with them—watching from the audience as they perform their shows. Warsaw, Berlin, Paris: wherever they go, you follow. You are close to them as they are to each other, yet, like the characters themselves, you’ll learn that just because you’re close to someone doesn’t mean you’ll ever understand them.
And of course this all looks beautiful as well. Cinematographer Lucasz Zal shot “Cold War” in black and white and a nearly square 4:3 aspect ratio, yet the picture itself doesn’t look old. The reduced color and size of the screen play into the constricting and distant atmosphere of the film. Like everything else about this movie, the aesthetic too, could be called ‘cold.’ On their own, the stylistic choices that bring the film to life on the screen make the picture unique, but, in congruence with everything else Powlikowski does, the film presents an astonishingly complete organic unity only ever displayed in the best pieces of cinema.
Although the title ostensibly refers to the war that exists as a backdrop for the story, it would be disingenuous to call that the only ‘cold war’ we see. The ways in which Wiktor and Zula dance around each other’s feelings is a sort of cold war in and of itself. They know what they want from each other, yet they seldom ask for it directly. They go around each other’s backs, often communicating through proxies. They try to get ahead of one another, thinking it’s what’s best for their relationship, never considering that what they really need is just to sit and talk for a bit. The war which plagues their country is devastating, but the real ‘cold war’ was in their hearts all along.