Cold War

Published February 7, 2019 in Warp & Woof

Cold War

Deeper Context for Pawel Pawlikowski’s Film?
William Sundwick
Despite its title, Cold War is first and foremost a love story — a very Polish love story. Pawel Pawlikowski, as auteur, has already produced one Oscar-winning film, 2013’s Ida. Cold War is a contender for the foreign film honors in 2018.  Its inescapable, overt context is Poland’s artistically stultifying, soul-crushing period under Soviet domination. The film spans 15 years of the main characters’ lives, 1949-1964. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a musical ethnographer in the mold of Alan Lomax in the U.S., and Zula (Joanna Kulig), a folk singer from “the mountains,” weave an on-again/off-again affair extending over the prime years of their lives, star-crossed lovers like Romeo and Juliet, but old enough to know better!
 Wiktor is an idealist, a believable artist and intellectual. His passion: resurrect a dying folk culture from Poland’s hinterlands. He sees it as noble, genuine art. Zula, we learn almost from the moment we meet her, is a  player.She has a different sort of dream – to “make it.” If Wiktor can be her vehicle, so much the better. He features her in his touring ensemble, Mazurek, encouraged by the socialist authorities, which consists of singing, dancing, and plenty of class warfare propaganda (including giant portraits of Stalin unfurled as backdrop to their performances). Wiktor’s original collaborator, Irena, can’t stand the censorship of artistic overlords, personified by the apparatchik “watcher” Kaczmarek who follows the troupe around Europe as they perform.
Performing in Berlin sets up both Wiktor and Zula to defect to the West. But Zula reneges. Their careers intersect again later in Paris. Wiktor, a jazz pianist now, very bohemian, and Zula, singing Polish folk songs in French, reworked as jazz. She plays to her audience. He still searches for something genuine. In the end, they return to Poland together. Zula frees Wiktor from prison(a 15-year sentence for defection), via marriage and child-bearing with a Party official, and the film ends sadly. But Wiktor and Zula are finally together.
Reviewers agree that the film’s cinematography and musical score are sensational. Indeed, some have referred to it as a “musical” because of the rich score. Kulig is a talented singer cast appropriately as Zula; and, as actress, a cross between Jennifer Lawrence and Marilyn Monroe, with her sultry and manipulative ways.
More mysterious are the main characters’ motivations. Wiktor and Zula seem to have conflicting drivers. Wiktor, the true artist intellectual, continually searches for aesthetic purity. Zula comes across as more embedded in her Polish folk art – she isfolk, Wiktor is merely seeking “folk.” Socialist realism, the overweening authority in all artistic matters, paints Zula as a proletarian worker’s hero. Its rules dictate how Wiktor should proceed with his project.  Its agenda sets the travel schedule through Europe.
In interviews, the director readily confesses that his two main characters represent his own parents – he even gave them the same names.
Pawlikowski emphasizes the grayness of Polish society by filming in black-and-white with documentary-like Academy 4:3 aspect ratio. He did the same in Ida. The melodramatic angst of the main characters leaves one to wonder if the socialist realism Pawlikowski (or Irena) presumably hates isn’t really a metaphor for the struggle of all artists against the norms of the state – or the critics. I believe this is the deeper context of Pawlikowski’s message. Further evidence is that, apparently, Poland has recently resorted again to state intervention and hijacking of musical performers.

Is the Polish state exploiting nationalism now? Endeavoring to promote that “simple peasant” narrative? Today’s cultural milieu in Poland is more diverse. The state may have designs on the popular imagination for political purposes but is not all-powerful, as in the Soviet past of Cold War.
After the Iron Curtain disappeared, Poland joined the EU, and a vigorous multi-party democracy emerged. Surely not the drab grayness of Pawlikowski’s scenario. Had Wiktor and Zula been able to see another 15 years into the future, after Cold War ends, they would both likely have become wrapped up in Solidarnoscand the sweet optimism of impending change.
Yet, perhaps Poland has not changed so much? We can imagine Wiktor as elderly sage lamenting that he still cannot find original, creative work in the youthful contemporary music scene.
Polish rock bands tend to align themselves with one or the other of their country’s ideological strands, either PiS (Law and Justice Party – conservative, nationalistic) or PO (Civic Platform – more socially liberal, pro-EU). Their musical styles may be hip-hop, heavy metal, or punk, but the musical genre is independent of the ideological persuasion of their songs. The Jarocin punk rock festivals have been a sounding board for these social conflicts since the 1980s.
The eternal compromises of art and politics are reflected in Zula’s accommodation to the authorities, and ultimately her bringing Wiktor back to Poland, and securing his release from prison, despite her own alleged parole on the murder charge for killing her abusive father. The Roger Ebert review doubts that the story of her parole and her father’s abuse (“he mistook me for my mother, so I showed him the difference with a knife”) is true. Reality itself becomes as gray as Cold War’s cinematography.
Perhaps the artistic meaning of the Iron Curtain to Pawlikowski is that it represents the boundary with the “other side” – whatever that may be. His critique may not be so much of enforced socialist realism in art as the perennial constraints placed on art by any ideology. That would be Wiktor’s complaint. In the film’s denouement, however, both Wiktor and Zula seem resigned to their fate. They have returned home again after all those years away.
Have they finally resolved their artistic conflicts?

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