If you saw Ida, you have a good preparation for some basic atmospheric elements of Cold War, namely in that this will be a tonally grim affair with extremely distinctive cinematography. For Cold War, Pawlikowski sets his sights on chronicling the relationship between Zula Lichon (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot) over the course of 15 years while major European historical events that occurred in the aftermath of World War II play out in the background. Zula and Wiktor first meet when Zula becomes one of a number of girls and boys hired to be part of a singing group meant to reflect pride in their home country of Poland. Zula's exceptional voice makes her stand out from the crowd and captures Wiktor's attention, leading them to start a romance together.
This being a Pawil Pawlikowski movie, this affair cannot go in a tidy happy direction and after meeting in the later 1940s, they later split up. From there, the story of Cold War constantly flashes forward a few years into the future to see how Zula and Wiktor, who soon reunite in the 1950s, are doing as individual people and as a couple. Historical figures from this era like Joseph Stalin are kept off-screen but the impact of their influence and actions are profoundly felt by our two lead characters who constantly find themselves either literally or psychologically imprisoned. Telling a story that's solely about relentlessly struggles in the lives of two human beings result in a story that seems to be channeling the works of Robert Bresson, namely Au Hasard Balthazar, or Martin Scorsese's Silence in its unflinching depiction of human misery.
A movie this grim is not going to be for everyone, but considering what a high opinion I hold for the likes of Au Hasard Balthazar and Silence, Cold War worked exceptionally well for me, mainly because, like those two aforementioned movies, Cold War doesn't forget to have recognizably human figures at the center of all its anguish. Take the character of Zula, for instance, a character we're introduced to as a determined survivor who used a knife to defend herself from her father and who gets her big first audition by convincing another girl that her audition song would work better as duet piece! We're clearly introduced to Zula as someone who has no trouble doing whatever's necessary to stay afloat in a miserable world, but even she's not impervious feelings of misery as she gets older.
This makes later scenes showing her trying to escape her current circumstances, like dancing all over a tavern to the Stray Cats tune Rock This Town or briefly escaping a party by retreating to a bathroom mirror, utterly tragic to watch, especially since they portray her distress in such a subdued manner. Having such a well-defined character to travel a tidal wave of turmoil with lends substance to all the despair Cold War puts its lead characters through. Another advantage of making Zula such a fascinating individual is that it offers actor Joanna Kulig plenty of opportunities to excel as a performer. She does a fantastic job portraying both the characters muted sense of woe and how Zula subtly changes over the course of this 15-year-long story.
Kulig is filmed through distinctive cinematography choices that aren't just limited to shooting the feature in black-and-white. Cold War is filmed in a unique 1.37: 1 aspect ratio that may limit the amount of horizontal space in any given frame, but that seems to have just fired up the imagination of cinematographer Lukasz Zal considering what exceptional work he does here. Zal makes some truly inspired visual choices throughout Cold War, including a variety of creative blocking arrangements for characters in more crowded sequences or the recurring visual motif of filming a single character talking at the very bottom of a frame while a large amount of space hovers above them. The value of empty space in a frame, the way it can instill a sense of quiet anguish and/or contemplation, is something that Zal is keenly aware of and that element is a critical component of some of the most emotionally stirring images in Cold War.
Best of all in the cinematography is, like the script, how it constantly focuses on the two lead characters. We can be in a bustling cafe watching Zula performing for a crowd of people, but instead of constantly opting for a wide shot to capture the crowd of patrons, Zal frequently goes for more intimate close-up shots that have the body language of Kulig communicating so much about what's going on inside her character's mind even while it may look like she's just crooning a tune. Cold War is a movie about human misery, no question about it, but the most brilliant part of Pawel Pawlikowski's newest movie is how it explores human misery by function first and foremost as an exploration of one couple's fifteen-year-struggle to survive. The human misery is so compelling and intentionally hard to watch because, in addition to the sublime filmmaking and acting on display we here, we care about the figures trapped in all this torment, that's why Cold War works as well as it does.