Cold War (2018)

R Running Time: 88 mins



  • For those yet to have the chance to see Cold War, the Oscar buzz and anticipation is going to pique a lot of interest.

  • Director Paweł Pawlikowski returns, after his 2013 Oscar-winning Ida, to tell a gorgeous black-and-white of on-again, off-again romance inspired by the tumultuous relationship his parents experienced while he was growing up.

  • Features a significant breakout performance from Joanna Kulig, which has drawn a lot of attention since the film opened last fall on the festival circuit.


  • From an emotional standpoint, the film keeps viewers at arms length, which makes it difficult to resonate with its themes on a personal level.

  • Somber, melodramatic, bleak - some of the words used to describe the tone and atmosphere Pawlikowski has created here.

  • May struggle to come together in a meaningful, cohesive way for some viewers.


After winning an Oscar for his home country of Poland in 2013 with Ida, writer/director Paweł Pawlikowski has finally delivered his follow-up, the musically-charged drama Cold War. Beginning in Poland, c. 1949, amid a country still recovering from World War II, we will observe a romance develop between music director Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and a young singer named Zula (Joanna Kulig). Spanning nearly two decades, Cold War covers a fair amount of ground and looks just about as beautiful as any movie released in 2018.

Like Ida, Pawlikowski returns to a clear, clean, visually striking black-and-white template, beautifully shot by cinematographer Łukasz Żal. What will emerge is the whirlwind love story of Wiktor finding Zula through an audition for a state choir he is putting together to record and perform traditional Polish folk songs. He is smitten almost immediately, which aggravates his traveling producer, Irena (Agata Kulesza), and catches the young vocalist by surprise.

However, the two are fatefully drawn to one another and not only must navigate through the awkward fumblings of a clandestine relationship at the outset, but their differences in age and life experiences cause more ripples then calm. Yet, the two cannot quit one another as they say, and so, we see them come together and break apart…come together…and break apart.

Pawlikowski has said Cold War is a deeply personal film, based on the combustible relationship his parents shared through their years together. He even dedicates the film to them in a post-final scene title card. Co-written by the director and collaborators Janusz Glowacki and Piotr Borkowski, he explores how our differences can draw us to someone and, almost as immediately, drive us away. Cold War jumps across sequences of time, while Wiktor and Zula’s love affair travels across Europe with their two hearts continually discovering ways to find each other.

Additionally, Cold War begins with what feels like a musicology lesson, but then turns more intimate. The legacy of Polish folk music is on display for the first several minutes of the film before a significant line of dialogue is shared. By the time Zula steps into Wiktor and Irena’s audition, the two evaluators are exhausted. Once the attraction begins to grow, jealousy erupts, betrayals occur, and emotions seem like a plaything which can be tossed aside or discarded, just as easily picked back up whenever someone seems bored or lonely.

Kulig is terrific in a breakout performance as the free-wheeling soul, who seems to present a different personality for Wiktor to learn and understand each time they come together. Kulig gives us a complex character, intermittently immature and entitled, loving and nurturing, selfish and thoughtful. Alongside Kot’s performance, the love affair the two share is complicated, messy, but believable, as the two actors generate terrific chemistry together.

With that said, Cold War can be, well, cold to the touch. Where Ida could keep us at an observational length in telling us the story of a prospective nun learning hidden truths about her family’s background, to become something special, Cold War needs us more emotionally invested. What we see is compelling – the haphazard, chaotic messiness of two people in love, the music, the breathtaking visuals Pawlikowski serves up for us – but we again are left to the fringes of the story as observers.

When telling a love story, observation can only go so far. Lacking the ability to draw us in emotionally to the experiences Wiktor and Zula bring to their relationship, we admire the proceedings but cannot fully connect to them. And while Cold War is a lot of great things, finding that ability to connect with an audience proves a bit more difficult.


Starring: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cédric Kahn, Jeanne Balibar.

Director: Paweł Pawlikowski
Written by: Paweł Pawlikowski (story); Paweł Pawlikowski, Janusz Glowacki (screenplay); Piotr Borkowski (screenplay collaboration)
Release Date: December 21, 2018
Amazon Studios