Pawel Pawlikowski’s rapturous film of love among the ruins has emerged as one of the biggest surprises in this year’s Oscar race with nominations in Foreign Language Film, Cinematography and Directing. Cold War also won the ASC for Cinematography. What is it about this film that has captivated so many? It is the way Palikowski puts up so many obstacles in the way of two people in love. We can’t help but think of oppression because all we want to see is for these lovers to be free to luxuriate in each other. That is all they seem to want and yet, it remains, throughout most of the film, beyond their reach.
Palikowski is a master with the frame, each shot richly detailed with muted greys, deep velvety blacks, stark whites. The black and white cinematography is a way of cooling things down so that every time the man Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and the woman, Zula (Joanna Kulig) come together the heat between them is all you can see.
The choice to shoot in 4:3 aspect ration recalls found footage from a forgotten time, as though the viewer has stumbled on a buried treasure that, once opened, an untold love story spills out. It’s as if carelessly discarded film footage made during that span of time had been rediscovered on reels that had not been unreeled or projected for decades. Further enhancing that effect is the way the scenes are but fragments. At first glance they don’t connect in a smooth narrative flow because there are often gaps of years in between each chapter. The editing doesn’t try to make segues, but instead puts beats of a blank screen between each sequence. We’re seeing nothing but glimpses, the same way foggy memories of the past can pop into our heads.
But no matter how well done this mid-century verisimilitude may be, it would be nothing but an artful conceit if it didn’t serve a purpose by drawing the audience in. Cold War is about Poland struggling to maintain its cultural identity under the oppressive thumb of Russia. But of course, it’s also about how the director’s own parents first met, were separated, reunited, and torn apart, time after time. Again, the square framing of isolated vignettes makes the viewer feel what it’s like to page through an old photo album of their own parents, to see moments from their lives captured in stark documentary black and white, to know the context of the era with no need to have the connecting events filled in — and the way that can make us ache to know more, and at the same time be grateful for the chance to see any scraps of evidence at all. The blank screen between sequences is like pages of that album being turned. Watching the lovers who will become your parents jump from youth to adulthood to middle age. The lives of our mom and dad flashing before our eyes. Not in an arc that’s easily traced, but in flickers we have to apprehend.
Because Pawlikowksi’s parents were thrown together in tumultuous times, it’s a miracle of happenstance that they ever met and connected at all. And man, do they ever connect, with all the passionate urgency of any couple who knows that their time together can be interrupted at any moment by social and political chaos. And then after being separated by circumstance beyond their control, some kind of magnetic attraction often referred to as Fate keeps causing their paths to cross and reigniting the fire that never got doused out but always remained a glowing ember. Again, all this beyond their control. Personally, I love this groove in novels and movies, because it clicks with my own experience of riding life’s waves and trusting in serendipity to take me where I need to be, right time right place, come what may.
In the end, though, that kind of continued campaign becomes too overbearing to fight, and the only answer left is to submit or take a different way out.
Cold War feels more like a movie about resisting the waves of oppression that are sprouting up all over the world, and indeed here in America. By offering up the opposite of war, the opposite of coldness – by offering two people who would die to be together – we are reminded of what we must never lose when waves of political oppression threaten to choke us off from who we are, where we come from and how we define ourselves.
So on a deeper level of almost subconscious hypnotic imagery, the director is trying to capture on film the Big Bang that brought him into existence, and how that almost didn’t happen, seemed at times doomed not to happen, but then a spark of zeitgeist united in an orgasm zygote that turned into the human being who is now making hypnotically entrancing movies for whole planet to see and think about and ponder. Then there’s another thread in the tapestry about the importance of music and song in passing along memories that can’t otherwise be adequately expressed, and the way the changing rhythms of the times reflect the growing maturity of the man and the woman as they struggle to improvise a melody out of all the noise of their culture in crisis, and they way they gracefully manage to express that in a way that only music can do.