Cold War – The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)

In considering how to adequately express my admiration for director Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of epics. From a general sense of the term, classifying this Polish romantic drama as an epic would disregard some of the typical elements of this categorization. Cold War is half the length of a standard epic, with a budget that would hardly cover the catering for Middle Earth. However, the span of time covered in this film and the sweeping nature of the romantic bond shared between the two lead characters feel like more than enough reason to place this film in that realm. There’s also the backdrop of the Cold War in Europe, which is never removed from the narrative. Regardless, even if one wants to justify calling Cold War a piece of science fiction, it doesn’t take away from just how stunning a feature this is. Now The Criterion Collection has put out a terrific release for one of my favorite films from 2018.


Inspired by Pawlikowski’s parents’ lives, here is a film that finds characters on a long and complicated road when it comes to both realizing their love for each other, as well as being able to sustain it. While finding a more cinematic approach for his inspiration, Pawlikowski doesn’t shy away from showing the bitter truths about placing two different people together and the difficulties that arise from both their temperaments, as well as the world that is seemingly working against them.

Tomasz Kot stars as Wiktor, a musician who has come to the ruins of post-war Poland to locate talent for a production he and his partner are working on. Joanna Kulig is Zula, one of the women selected for this show, and while we quickly learn of her troubled past, she proves to have a talent, and more that Wiktor finds himself interested in. What begins as a simple affair turns into more, as the two see themselves split up by various twists of fate that include struggles of the country, government interference, career opportunities, and other turns in the story.

Stylistically, the film shares a lot with Pawlikowski’s previous film, the Oscar-winning Ida. Cold War is shot in striking black and white and presented in the 4:3 Academy ratio. The excellent cinematography by Lukasz Zal leads to careful framing to account for our focus on the characters, whether they are presented on their own or during lavish production numbers. Also, like Ida, the film manages to tell its story within 90 minutes. Spanning fifteen years, how is it possible to tell a story that feels like it encompasses so much and generates plenty of emotion?

It comes down to brilliant choices made by Pawlikowski, editor Jaroslaw Kaminski, and the performers involved. With an understanding that constantly feeding the audience exact details of what’s taking place in the years we do not see could reduce the film’s impact, and, worse, lead to bad scenes in general, careful choices are made to show the viewer what is necessary. Less is more is the way to look at Cold War, as every fade to black is handled with purpose. Here’s a film that works with the intelligence of its audience by finding ways to provide implied understandings and clues to what sort of things transpired in the time not seen. Meanwhile, every frame of this film that is seen is now more precious.

Thanks to the work by Kulig and Kot, along with several supporting characters who continually crop up, I was never at a loss for what I needed to understand about the current state of affairs with these people. Additionally, with time jumps forcing me to keep up with an evolving status quo, I get to see the terrific effort put in by this duo to play new shades of their characters as they grow older and advance into different versions of who they once were. Whether that leads to seeing their growing success, sudden failures, growth towards happiness, or descent into bitterness, Cold War allows Zula and Wiktor to experience a full spectrum of emotions and other defining qualities.

Another factor to keep in mind: Cold War is a musical. It’s not a musical in the traditional sense, just like it’s not an epic in the way many define it, but the movie doesn’t shy away from song and dance. We see theatrical productions, solo numbers, stage performances, jazz numbers, bar dances, and more, with a beautiful score by Marcin Masecki to accompany the work done by the actors to show off their musical prowess. Adding to that, some early scenes that evoke the folk music of the area, and here’s a film that understands how the changes in composition help inform how these characters advance as the years go by.

As implied by the title, Cold War is not beyond evoking the politics of the time as a factor in how this story shapes itself. One can attempt to draw parallels to modern times, but even if there is plenty to explore in that regard, it is well worth emphasizing just how involved I found myself in the connection between Zula and Wiktor, and what it meant to see the changing world around them play a significant role in where things would go for them. Even as the film finds ways to age these two (sometimes to a heartbreaking degree), watching them within a broader context speaks to how affecting the various themes concerning love and circumstance are.

Getting back to the nature of an epic, something I can admire about the best examples found in that genre is the way it can relate a vast story to the viewer using a few essential characters. Cold War accomplishes as much by equating the weight of the world to whether or not Zula and Wiktor are meant to stay together, and challenging why it would be possible. Does it come down to politics and geography? Or is there something deeper concerning their level of compatibility, despite their apparent differences?  Thinking of these aspects, and watching how it all turns out makes Cold War a marvelous experience that lingers even after the wall has finally come down.


Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1

Details: Cold War was completed in a fully digital workflow. Being a modern film, disc mastering was not nearly as extensive as other archival releases.

Clarity/Detail: This film looks fantastic. The flawless black & white presentation does all it can to show off the tremendous cinematography present throughout the film, let alone the level of detail that can be seen. There’s so much to take in given all of the various locations, costumes, and more.

Depth: A proper handle on spacing keeps the image from ever feeling flat. The complex work done with this restoration does such a fine job of showing the distance between characters, which is especially important in the film’s musical moments, where we see so much elaborate dancing in a multi-level environment.

Black Levels: The black levels are great. The use of shadows and nighttime lighting is incredible to behold thanks to the effort done in making the video quality of this disc stand out so strong.

Color Reproduction: N/A

Flesh Tones: The detail level seen in the actual characters is impressive; doing what is needed to properly show off the leads at different stages in their lives.

Noise/Artifacts: Nothing to speak of.



Audio Format(s): Polish DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Subtitles: English

Details: The 5.1 surround audio for this release was mastered from the original digital audio files using Pro Tools HD.

Dynamics: This lossless 5.1 track is spectacular. As a recent film, this should not be surprising, but there is a lot to speak up about, given the role music plays in this feature, and how well it functions as a crucial part of the film.

Low-Frequency Extension: Moments that shine here play into the role the performance pieces have in this film, allowing for some bumps on the sub-woofer.

Surround Sound Presentation: Strong balance throughout. It all helps with the immersive nature of the feature, which goes along with the choices made in the framing and more.

Dialogue Reproduction: Everyone is heard loud and clear.



Cold War arrives with a nice set of extras complimenting the release. It’s a mix of making-ofs and interviews that all speak to what the film is about, how it came together, and other necessary details for a film of its kind.

Features Include:

  • Pawel Pawlikowski (HD, 38:00) – This is an interview between director Pawlikowski and Oscar-winning director Alejandro Inarritu. The two go over how the film came together, the impact of other films, and more. A great interview to check out.
  • Cannes Press Conference (HD, 29:00) – The full press conference held at the Cannes films Festival. Pawilkowski is joined by actors Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, and Borys Szyc, as well as producer Ewa Puszczyriska, and cinematographer Lukasz Zal.
  • Behind the Scenes of Cold War (HD, 16:00) – A feature with some short interviews with the various cast and crew members. It addresses the style of the film, the sets, the story, and more.
  • The Making of Cold War (HD, 14:00) – Another behind the scenes look at the film, with more raw footage, and other interesting info about the making of the film.
  • Trailer (HD, 2:30)
  • PLUS – An essay by film critic Stephanie Zacharek



Eventually nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Director, Cold War left an impact on many, including myself, as I consider it among the best films of the last decade. Criterion has done proper justice to this marvelous film, thanks to a spectacular technical presentation and a nice collection of extras to round out the package. At merely 88 minutes, I see no reason why one would not want to check out this masterful drama, as it delivers in every way.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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