A postscript at the end of Cold War, the new film from Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, rather touchingly dedicates it to his parents, whose relationship inspired the story. Far from feeling self-indulgent, this dedication contextualises the non-judgemental sadness oozing from every stark, monochrome frame, adding a very personal layer to what is already a masterpiece of austere, understated emotion.
This is the kind of story that, in Hollywood hands, could have been a bloated three hour epic laden with histrionics and melodrama. But as with his previous film Ida, Pawlikowski prefers a more low-key approach. Shot in unfussy Academy Aspect ratio with a mere 88 minute running time, this is nonetheless packed with incident as the story glides between 1949 and 1964, beginning in post-War Poland as music maestro Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) begins a love affair with up-and-coming singer Zula (Joanna Kulig). The film charts their relationship with music as a key commentator, with Wiktor’s initial interest in Zula revolving around having her as part of a Polish folk music group, bringing the voice of the peasants to the people in song, as per the Communist ideal. But with Stalin in charge of the Soviet Union, songs about love give way to political hymns, and idealism turns to despair. Escapes to the West ensue, but displacement and alienation severely test the bond between lovers – again as music provides a key commentary on the passing of time, from folk to jazz to the birth of rock and roll.
Make no mistake, this is an absolutely beautiful film in every sense of the word. Not only does the black and white photography look stunning (care of cinematographer Lukasz Zal), but the screenplay is shot through with compassion, longing, love and regret, with the tragic spectre of Communist totalitarianism ever looming in the background. Those whose idea of cinema is purely car chases, superheroes and CGI visual effects obviously need not apply, but others will be stirred by the raw, understated, ultimately heartbreaking performances brilliantly delivered by the leads. There are images here that will stay with you for the rest of your life, as well as music that will haunt you (the irony in the song referring to two hearts and four eyes is particularly potent).
It’s still too early to make predictions, but I suspect Cold War is a shoo-in for Best Foreign Film at the next Oscars, earning Pawlikowski his second Oscar (he won for the equally brilliant Ida). In the meantime, this minimal, melancholy, achingly romantic gem is nothing less than a must-see for anyone with a serious interest in cinema.