Go down the list of feature films made in black-and-white in the past 50 years and you’ll find that there are a lot more than you remembered. Sometimes this choice is made to pay deliberate homage to the early days of cinema, as with The Artist (2011) or several of Woody Allen’s movies from the 1980s. Sometimes it’s because the filmmaker was an indie just getting started and unable to afford color film stock and process – in which case, as with the early works of Jim Jarmusch, the black-and-white aesthetic can become part of the director’s brand, perhaps unintentionally.
Then there are the movies that are filmed in black-and-white simply to take advantage of the “pure” visual impact that can be conveyed by form, light and composition within the frame without color as a distraction. A browse through a display of wall calendars tells us that our world is full of extraordinary landscape photographers, ready to knock our socks off with their color panoramas; but there was only one Ansel Adams, and they all bow down to him still.
Two of the movies nominated for piles of Oscars this cycle are in black-and-white, and both are competing in the Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Foreign Film categories. Roma is also up for Best Picture; I haven’t caught that one yet, so can’t say much about why it isn’t in color. But Cold War belongs solidly in the hallowed company of movies made that way simply because black-and-white is beautiful, when wielded with great skill, opening up its own peculiar opportunities to dazzle the eye.
Directed by Polish expatriate Paweł Pawlikowski, whose Ida took the Best Foreign Film Academy Award in 2015, Cold War snagged him the 2018 Best Director laurels at Cannes. It may not find such love in Hollywood, but it’s a visual gem that ought to be studied frame-by-frame by anyone pursuing a career in cinema. From its opening sequence – an exploration of the ruins of a bombed-out church in rural Poland in the late 1940s – this is a movie that’s all about cinematography as art.
Every shot is framed and lit with exquisite care. When the camera lingers on the faces of lovers lying side-by-side in a field, it’s dancing over their facial planes rather than their complexions. Of course, this being a story populated exclusively by pasty-faced Poles, until one of the leads eventually makes it to Paris to play jazz in nightclubs where actual people of color can be found, relative skin tones aren’t of much interest here, with one brief exception: A female dancer is criticized as “too dark” to represent Polish national identity by a skeevy promoter (Borys Szyc) likely to be harboring anti-Semitism left over from the war.
Even in a scene that in another movie would be a riot of color – a shot of a wardrobe mistress pawing through a rack of ornate folkdance costumes – Pawlikowski and his cinematographer Łukasz Zal use pattern rather than hue to evoke the tension and concentration of backstage bustle. It all works gorgeously well as low-calorie eye candy.
The lead actors, Joanna Kulig as Zula and Tomasz Kot as Wiktor, are both very strong as a couple passionately in love but parted by the winds of political change. When we first meet Wiktor, shortly after the war’s end, he’s a pianist who, along with his colleague Irena (Ida star Agata Kulesza), is combing the Polish countryside and small villages to make field recordings of traditional music. In the process they recruit hundreds of young Poles to audition for a new music and dance school that they’re establishing in a dilapidated, abandoned country manor, with government support. Among the candidates to join their folkloric troupe is Zula, a girl who stands out more for her bold demeanor and stage presence than for her vocal chops.
In short order, Wiktor falls for Zula, and learns that she is on probation, having nearly killed her father after he tried to rape her. Her vulnerable legal status becomes a hindrance to Wiktor’s dreams of fleeing the country together, motivated by ever-mounting government pressure on the troupe to become a Communist Party mouthpiece instead of exclusively performing authentic traditional songs and dances. As the company’s performances become slicker (and add more odes to Stalin to their repertoire), they are invited to tour outside Poland, affording tantalizing opportunities for Wiktor and Zula to make their escape. In Berlin they have their Rick-waiting-for-Elsa-in-the-train-station moment, and the tale jumps years forward in time before their paths cross again.
When they do, it’s still…complicated, for character reasons, tainted by lingering homesickness on Zula’s part, her difficulty in adapting to Wiktor’s cosmopolitan new turf. They can’t stay apart, but they can’t seem to stay together either. Cold War is suffused with sardonic romanticism reminiscent of the French New Wave, and there are no starry-eyed happy endings here.
As a story, Cold War breaks no new ground. Come instead for the thrilling music and dance, for the acting, the sense of time and place and political ferment, and most of all for the damn-near-perfect visuals. Even amidst formidable competition, a Best Cinematography prize would not be unwarranted here.