Criterion Review: COLD WAR

Paweł Pawlikowski’s Polish romance is added to the collection

More often than not, the Criterion Collection reaches into the past to restore and celebrate landmarks of film. Every so often, a more recent release strikes a chord and is granted their attention; such is the case with last year’s Cold War. A romance inspired by the parents of Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, the film delivered him the Best Director Award at Cannes and garnered multiple accolades including Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography, and Best Director at the Academy Awards. It’s a passionate period piece that stirs the heart and lingers long in the mind.


This sweeping, delirious romance by Paweł Pawlikowski begins in the Polish countryside, where Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a musician on a state-sponsored mission to collect folk songs, discovers a captivating young singer named Zula (Joanna Kulig, in a performance for the ages). Over the next fifteen years, their turbulent relationship will play out in stolen moments between the jazz clubs of decadent bohemian Paris, to which he escapes, and the corrupt, repressive Communist Bloc, where she remains — universes bridged by their passion for music and for each other. Photographed in luscious monochrome and suffused with the melancholy of the simple folk song that provides a motif for the couple’s fateful affair, Pawlikowski’s timeless story — inspired by that of his own parents — is a heart-stoppingly grand vision of star-crossed love caught up in the tide of history.

The film follows a relationship as tumultuous as the place and era in which it unfolds: an Eastern Europe, reckoning with the aftermath of World War II. From the ruins emerges a growing Communist party and people trying to preserve the past and culture of Poland. One such individual is Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a musician and ethnomusicologist who travels the region looking to preserve the music of his country. Once excursion causes him to cross paths with singer Zula (Joanna Kulig). An instant attraction sparks a fiery relationship, one conducted in secret to avoid the watchful eye of their Communist handler. Their artistry and talents feed into their compositions and relationship, and eloping to the West enters their thoughts. Events conspire against them, pushing them apart and reuniting them every few years, whereupon they resume their affair, until the next time fate gets in the way.

The romance unfolds across different periods of time, with Pawlikowski deftly showing the encounters of Wiktor and Zula, be they long or brief, before events, truths, or their flaws separate them again. Each is informed by their own lives as well as the political and social climate at the time. Cold War is preoccupied with the nature of enduring love and challenges to it, and this dipping into their lives to see what stays the same and what changes is enthralling, giving precious glimpses of something special. The excitement of what comes next, counters the intrigue of moments missed. It’s another take on the “war-torn lovers“’” genre, but Pawlikowski, along with co-writers Janusz Glowacki and Piotr Borkowski, gives us something fresh and delirious, aided by sizzling performances from their leads. Elegantly lurching through their romance, they often leave you breathless, sometimes befuddled, but always enraptured.

The emotional charge of these encounters serves as a contrast to the classic feel that stems from the black and white aesthetic. An inky sumptuousness is thanks to cinematographer Lukasz Zal; it imbues the moments and images that rightly earned him an Academy Award nomination for cinematography. The time hops are accompanied by changes in musical usage, components of the film that underline the shifts in attitudes and the freedom afforded them as the grasp of the communists eased. Think rigid, traditional folk music giving way to the free flow of jazz. It’s smart construction from Pawlikowski, who also shows genuine craft behind the camera. Technique that focuses on this pair as well as boxing them in together delivers a lean but memorable love story set amidst a challenging time.

The Package

Being only a year old, Criterion are not burdened by a painstaking restoration. Accordingly, and in keeping with their usual efforts, the film looks superb. The result of a 4K scan supervised by director Paweł Pawlikowski and director of photography Łukasz Żal is detail and depth of image are top drawer, aided by impressive contrast and quality of blacks. It’s a pristine presentation for a film that deservedly garnered an Oscar nomination for best cinematography in 2018. Extra features are:

  • New conversation between Pawlikowski and filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu: Running just under 40 minutes, the conversation largely centers on the inspiration for the film, the development of the story, and the eventual reception upon release. It’s a nice addition, one with some frank dialogue between the filmmakers and insights into how they have honed their craft.
  • Press conference from the 2018 Cannes Film Festival featuring Pawlikowski and Żal; actors Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, and Borys Szyc; and producer Ewa Puszczyńska: The full conference/aftermath of Pawlikowski’s “Best Director” victory.
  • Behind the Scenes of Cold War: Primarily using interviews with Pawlikowski, actor Tomasz Kot, and cinematographer Lukasz Zal, this featurette touches on the origins of the film’s story, the production design, the score, and the choroegraphy too. Short, but nicely executed.
  • The Making of Cold War: Another short extra, one juxtaposing short interviews with on set footage, much of it highlighting Pawlikowski working on set.
  • Trailer
  • New English subtitle translation
  • PLUS: An essay by film critic Stephanie Zacharek: Presented in the included inner leaflet, which also presents images from the film along with details on the presentation.

The Bottom Line

Passion and politics in post-war Poland. It may not sound like the most alluring combination, but Cold War is intoxicating. A visually stunning film that deftly and potently sketches out this volatile relationship and era. A draw between two people that cannot be extinguished by time nor place captivates, and this release from Criterion only adds to the film’s luster.

Cold War is available via Criterion from November 19th, 2019.

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