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Cold War by Pawel Pawlikowski
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Cold War by Pawel Pawlikowski, Oscar-bound

In sublime black and white, featuring bold directing and actors working in perfect harmony, Cold War could well add an Oscar to its already-lengthy list of international awards.

Updated on 04/03/2019

5 min

Nominated for Oscars in three categories, Cold War by Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski has gone from strength to strength since it was first screened at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Best Director award.

A cinema which showcases women

It’s 1949, Poland is in ruins and its folk traditions are being used as a propaganda tool. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), tasked by the Communist Party with recruiting artists to create a folk performance troupe, falls for the charms of Zula (Joanna Kulig), a young singer as beautiful as she is explosive. Beyond their love story, peppered with breakups and reunions over more than 15 years, Pawel Pawlikowski portrays in a very elegant black and white the ways in which totalitarian policy distorts and shapes relations between beings.

The film owes its intense emotional impact notably to its leading pair, especially Joanna Kulig, who illuminates every frame with her electric presence and audacity. Cold War puts women at the forefront, like the director's previous film Ida. In Pawel Pawlikowski’s work, men take a step back. It is the women, strong and passionate, who inspire a more modest main male character, often an anti-hero lost in the twists and turns of his own existence. The feminist angle of Cold War has helped it win the hearts of international critics. Jailed for having stabbed her incestuous father, Zula is a survivor. She is free from norms and conventions; audaciously, she always takes the lead.

Formal splendour and bold staging

This audacity is also evident in the directorial choices made by Pawel Pawlikowski, the only Polish director to date to have won an Oscar for best foreign film (Ida, 2014). This was the first feature film shot by the director in his native country after a stint of several years in Germany, England, Italy and France. That shocking black and white film earned him many awards. The tale of a Jewish girl spared by her parents' Polish murderers and then raised in a convent, Ida caused a political scandal in his country, where he was accused of being anti-Polish. Ida nevertheless marked a turning point in Pawel Pawlikowski’s career and in a certain way Cold War continues in its footsteps.

Loyal to his team, the director has once again collaborated with Łukasz Zal, who received an Oscar nomination for best cinematography for Ida. It is to him that we owe the sumptuous black and white of Cold War, which oscillates between light and shadows as the plot moves across Europe and through the different stages Zula and Wiktor's love story. Sometimes glowing, sometimes dark, the film’s black and white symbolically, and accurately, recalls the greys of post-war and Soviet Poland. Cold War also features the square format which was one of Ida's quirks. While the choice of 4:3 in his previous feature film allowed Pawel Pawlikowski to get as close as possible to the face of his heroine, almost inside her head, here it offers an airier and more energetic feel. The square format highlights the film’s many still frames and its often-bold framing choices, which give equal emphasis to the faces and the sets. Underneath its ostensible classicism, Cold War in fact surprises with its non-linear narrative and the intelligence of its direction.

From the Cannes Film Festival to the Oscars

It was precisely the singularity of its direction and its stylistic ease which led the film to be unanimously praised by French and foreign critics alike, and to receive numerous nominations and awards across the world, notably a directing prize at the last Cannes Film Festival, the Goya for best foreign film and 5 awards at the 2018 European Film Awards.

Cold War is now headed into the Oscars with three nominations: best foreign film, best director (Pawel Pawlikowski) and best cinematography (Łukasz Zal). The film is notably in the running alongside  Roma by Alfonso Cuarón, another intimate drama in black and white set in a context of political upheaval. The results will be revealed at the ceremony on February 25th in Los Angeles.



The Institut français and the project

Cold War was supported by the Aide aux cinémas du monde fund.


This Institut français programme provides support to foreign film-makers for film projects co-produced with France, whether they be feature-length fiction, animated films or creative documentaries.

L'institut français, LAB