Who would have thought that the best double feature of the year would be two films shot entirely in black and white, with one even being shot in 4:3? I certainly could not have guessed that, but if you had asked me what my top ten most anticipated films were at the start of this year, Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski’s follow-up to 2015’s Oscar Winner for Best Foreign Language Film Ida would have been fairly high on that list. I am incredibly happy to report that I was not let down by even my highest expectations. Cold War is nothing short of a masterpiece, and will be talked about in cinephile circles for decades to come as a landmark in Eastern European Cinema.
The first thing that stands out about Pawlikowski’s two most-recent films is the aspect ratio. Although the square 4:3 is a relic of the past, it fits for this story set in the middle of the 20th century, and helps to set the audience firmly in that tumultuous time period. The atmosphere of this film is palpable, and will leave a lasting impression on any wary viewer, even if foreign language films are not their usual viewing choice. I know I said Roma had the Cinematography Oscar cinched, but now I am not as convinced. Lukasz Zal is the brilliant cinematographer responsible for what is now some of my favorite work in that field in many years, perhaps since he last worked with Pawlikowski on Ida over five years ago.
Cold War’s brilliant story makes use of a concept that I would have thought was impossible to utilize without coming off as a cheap imitation of Shakespeare: star-crossed lovers. Zula and Wiktor, our two main characters, are just that, and the way their story is told in snippets spanning over fifteen years is brilliant, and concludes with one of the best final scenes of any movie I’ve seen all year. These two characters are both in musical professions, and thus this film rounds out its uniquely European aesthetic with a soundtrack that rivals some of the best of recent years. I know calling this film “Polish A Star Is Born” may seem like an unfair simplification, but that was one of the many inspirations I saw for this story. Hints of other films I saw included Metropolis, Citizen Kane, and Grand Budapest Hotel. Pawlikowski takes the best parts of each of these films, and creates a look and story all his own. I cannot wait to watch this film again, and that is something I almost never do outside of the occasional blockbuster.