To a viewer familiar with Eastern European cinema, this opening calls to mind the first shots of Serbian director Emir Kusturica’s Dom za vešanje (literally “Home for Hanging,” translated as Time of the Gypsies, 1988). In Kusturica’s film, a similar shot introduces a local storyteller who then becomes the film’s implied narrator. Dreams of such transmedial, transgenerational storytelling hover over Pawlikowski’s opening. But a mood of alienation and restlessness soon overtakes it. The gaze we follow belongs to a group of government-sponsored researchers who have come to record the old Polish singer for posterity. Their presence suggests that the tradition he represents is about to be lost, or at least irretrievably distorted. The older man’s music communicates between generations but also performs a past that can no longer be retrieved. It draws attentions from passers-by while allowing this old man to forget about them.
This opening cameo announces many of the themes of the film that follows; it also prefigures the film’s preoccupation with condensation and metonymy. Like Pawlikowski’s Academy Award–winning Ida (2013), Cold War places its bets on the capacity of a small but carefully told story to embody historical tensions and tragedies much broader than itself. In the process, it also wonders what it means — whether it is a sign of strength or foolishness, of blindness or emotional honesty — to understand one’s world through a single, well-chosen narrative or motif, whether it be a melody, a landscape, or a love affair.
The plot of Cold War stretches over two decades, from the late 1940s to the late 1960s, and over several countries of Western, Central, and Eastern Europe: Poland, France, Germany, Russia, and the former Yugoslavia. But one wouldn’t be able to predict its sweep based on the small, dilapidated, Polish manor in which its initial narrative takes place. A party bureaucrat and two musician-ethnomusicologists gather a group of teenage men and women from the peasantry. The men and women are deposited at this manor from army-style trucks that hark back to — and at first disturbingly invoke — the World War that has just ravaged their country. These young people are here, the apparatchik announces, to learn folk songs and dances that the artist-scholars beside him have painstakingly recorded across Polish villages. Only some of them will make it through the careful selection process to follow. Those who do will become part of a group of singers and dancers intended to promote local folk culture in the newly proletarian Polish state.
In the English subtitles, this bureaucrat, named Lech Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), describes the motivation behind this program quite blandly: the new Polish government does not want to waste working-class talent. In the original Polish, he uses a literary allusion that is much more pointed, partly in ways that would seem to escape him. Nie będzie więcej Janków Muzykantów, he says; “There will be no more children like Janko the Musician.” To a Pole, this name rings many bells. Janko the Musician is the title character of a short story by the late 19th-century writer Henryk Sienkiewicz that became part of the first-grade reading curriculum in communist Poland. Janko is a musical prodigy whose talents waste away because of the accident of his birth into a poor, illiterate peasant family. One day, he passes by a rich man’s window and is lured in by the sight of a violin. Caught as he tries to play it, he is accused of theft and flogged to death.
For generations raised on the curriculum that began with his story, Janko Muzykant is a multivalent code word. He represents the maudlin and the gruesome, age-inappropriate horror and obvious anti-bourgeois indoctrination. He also encodes a complicated historical problem. His story points to a tradition of socialist thinking — or something like it — that existed in Poland before the Soviet Union, in emergent awareness of the social inequalities of 19th-century Central and Eastern Europe. Affectively, it puts a viewer in the know face-to-face with the hopes many Poles initially associated with the Soviet period. Janko embodies communism as needed and desired by Polish tradition — a means by which this tradition is not erased, but fulfilled. In its melodramatic childishness — which appears to elude Lech — the story also suggests a fragile political naïveté.
The three leaders of the assembled group embody different facets of this postwar idealism. Lech, the party member, is a Polish nationalist with huge career ambitions. He appears to care most about this project’s capacity to put his people — and himself — on a par with the ideologies of the Soviet Union, as its trustworthy and natural members. The two musicians beside him, Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot) and Irena Bielecka (Agata Kulesza) have other stakes of their own. Irena is an apparent prewar socialist who trusts the songs she gathers, and the ideas behind them, more than the new political system that appropriates them. A purist, Irena wants to find the best singers and the most beautiful songs, no matter whether they are composed in Polish or in a minority dialect (a sore point for Lech). She wants these songs to come from the people, and to remain unaltered by party propaganda. Played by an actress whose last major role, in the similar historical circumstances of Ida, was that of a Jewish woman, Irena is also implicitly, possibly, Jewish — embodying a kind of cosmopolitan leftism and diversity that will soon disappear from Poland completely. Wiktor is a superficially converted bourgeois artist, a mentor of the kind Janko the Musician longed for. A talented, ambitious musician with a deep love of music and a need for artistic expression, he is relentlessly individualist in ways that easily slide into selfishness.
A fourth person joins this group, a rising proletarian artist of a kind they want to mentor. But this young protégée — Zula Lichoń, played by the wonderful Joanna Kulig — is of an unexpected sort. A sensual, nervy woman, Zula was recently released from prison for the attempted murder of her sexually abusive father. She is not from the countryside and doesn’t appear to know any folk songs. For her solo audition she sings a number from a recent Soviet blockbuster from whose lyrics she understands only one word, сердце, meaning “heart.” Her voice — while powerful — does not quite match those of some other young singers. However, Zula has a languid, stereotypically Slavic charm, a willingness to please those in power, and an effortless stage presence, all of which help her rise through the ranks of the troupe to become one of its poster faces.
Within this foursome, Wiktor and Zula are the odd ones out. Their impulsiveness and ironic self-awareness chafes against Irena’s and Lech’s ideals of seamless political or cultural continuity. Ineluctably, this difference brings them together: Zula’s audition strikes Wiktor like a coup de foudre. Over the course of the subsequent decade, their love affair repeatedly sputters and rekindles. It also takes them — at times alone and at times as a couple — to the four corners of Europe. They plan rendezvous in Parisian salons and in Polish prisons. He watches her from amid an indifferent crowd in Yugoslavia; in Moscow, she dances for him under a giant poster of Stalin. In each such venue, they desire nothing more than finally to be alone together, to find a place where the larger world no longer interferes with their affections.
Yet, as émigré artists or communist patriots, impresarios or fading starlets, Zula and Wiktor continue to dissatisfy each other. Their standards of intimacy seem higher and more complicated than those of the people around them; for precisely this reason, they continually feel compromised and betrayed. Beneath the masks they wear to survive now in one and then in another ideological milieu, they cannot discern each other with sufficient immediacy. “You were a real man in Poland,” Zula snaps at Wiktor in their Paris apartment after he tries to convince her to brand herself to his French friends as a murderous Slavic femme fatale. “Stop fucking this up,” he shoots back at her during a recording session in which she halfheartedly sings a French version of her Polish folk ballads. Meanwhile, they enter brief, strategic affairs and marriages with other people, some of whom we meet and others who exist only as a new last name. A mistrust of surrounding ideologies — whether national or Soviet, traditional or modern — first brought them together; this same mistrust now makes it impossible for them to make a life for themselves in a world where personal and aesthetic choices always bear an ideological tinge. It soon also starts to seem that both Zula and Wiktor do have some unavowed value systems — Wiktor’s grounded in music, and Zula’s in Polish religiosity — whose incompatibility makes their already compromised bonds even more difficult, and whose betrayal in the name of love eventually poisons their lives.
The setup of their story appears melodramatically to pit Wiktor and Zula, as individuals, against an indifferent world of social norms and political ends. “She is the love of my life,” Wiktor says both to Zula and to anyone else who will listen. “I’ll wait for you,” Zula promises him more than once, including on the brink of a prison sentence. However, as in Ida, Pawlikowski ultimately refuses to believe that a feeling, however powerful, can transcend the compromises and quandaries that mediate its expression. Despite the grandeur of such statements, Zula’s and Wiktor’s mutual passion cannot stave off its social and material conditions. Far from bending the world around itself, it fits the shape of whatever container this world accords to it — and becomes tainted with this container’s social implications. Like the martyred Janko, they cannot prevent their impulsive choices from resonating with inadvertent, politicized moral lessons.
The claustrophobia of this cosmopolitan love affair — and its inevitable, fearful contamination — dominates Cold War, not only in thematic, but also in formal ways. The decade-long, Europe-trotting plot it spans would seem to require at least two hours of epic cinema. In effect, Cold War clocks in at under 90 minutes, carefully and nearly irrationally avoiding any scenes that do not immediately concern the two lovers. Its shots tend to be short and intimate, to the point where — for all the sweeping quality implied by the film’s title — we see the vast expanses of Cold War Europe only as near-identical town houses, village huts seen in passing from a passing train, rows of similarly dressed strangers who gather for Zula’s performances. Despite its emphasis on local color, the film is shot in Pawlikowski’s signature black and white, with deeply saturated shots that often nearly flatten the two lovers and their surroundings into flat geometrical arrangements whose patterns repeat themselves from one shot to the next. Brief interludes where Zula and Wiktor see each other are followed by sharp cuts to black, held for a few seconds, as we wait and see how many years apart this new fadeout will span. Geographically, the film forms a circle — indeed, the place it returns to is literally a circular ruin, a church dome whose top, broken off like the tip of an eggshell, contours an unchanging disc of gray sky. Even the music that punctuates the plot is disarmingly repetitive. Much of it consists in the reiteration, in various keys, arrangements, and languages, of the same two folk songs.
The point of these repetitions is not simply to remove the film’s plot from its political context, or to critique its two protagonists’ passionate but insular connection. It is, instead, to show how difficult it is to recount these seemingly idiosyncratic, selfish stories except through ways in which they lean on or oppose such social entities greater than themselves. Seen through the prism of Wiktor and Zula’s relationship, the larger world is flattened and partly distorted. Its much greater scale, which only intermittently fades into the two lovers’ awareness, threatens to reduce their passion to a predictable cliché. In a telling, carefully orchestrated detail, we do not find out the two central characters’ names until midway through the film, in a way that comes as a sudden surprise. This makes one realize how long we’d been submerged in a private world in which only these two people, and their always already intimate conversation, truly mattered. It also makes one notice how significant a role these two lovers’ social dependencies and compromises play in our understanding of their feelings and choices: so that we meaningfully followed them as a bourgeois and a femme fatale, an émigré and a communist propagandist. Much as they might distrust the concepts and ideas around them, Zula and Wiktor can only express themselves through variations and combinations of them.
This dynamic of fractured familiarity extends all the way to the film’s broader allusions and references. These intertexts range from the very local to the very global — from ones that appear to address Pawlikowski’s home Polish audience, to ones that gesture toward seasoned international cinephiles. Like the characters’ own dilemmas about authenticity, these manifold allusions create a set of incomplete overlaps and fractures in the film’s apparent understanding of aesthetics and taste that make it seem both deeply idiosyncratic, and heavily dependent on a collage of influences. Pawlikowski refers back to Kusturica, as I mentioned earlier, as well as to Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. One of the film’s climactic late scenes, which takes place in 1963, renders homage to Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, which came out in France that same year. On a more local but no less highbrow level, Cold War resounds with echoes of Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels (1961) and Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958). The lowbrow and folk culture that saturates the film’s diegetic level is, by contrast, hauntingly familiar to the Polish consumer of popular culture. Late into her career, Zula sings cheesy Soviet hits from the ’60s; the film’s props, ranging from buses to tea glasses, evoke communist everyday life with the precision of a ritual reenactment.
Can a film partake with equal sincerity of Polish kitsch and the French New Wave? To simultaneously enjoy resonances of both traditions, as I did from my theater seat in midtown Manhattan, was to experience in my own mind and body a minor version of the irrational, confusing emotional imperatives that the film plays in the major key of melodrama. It was also to recognize the extent to which Pawlikowski represents personal attachments through constellations of concepts and values that do not otherwise belong together — as private worlds in which our shared environments are partly, but never completely, transfigured. Reimagining the Cold War as such an inevitably politicized love story, Pawlikowski achieves a striking, beautiful balance between allegory and speculative microhistory, a balance that amply rewards re-viewing and reflection.
Marta Figlerowicz is an assistant professor of Comparative Literature and English at Yale and a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows.