Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War is a love story told in ellipses, a tale of star-crossed lovers that glides across borders and 15 years of history. Though it ends a quarter century before Poland’s Cold War did, it implicitly projects a quarter century beyond that, to the heart of political discontents that still rattle Europe today.
The movie begins in 1949 in the Polish hinterlands, where a state-organized music troupe is traversing the countryside in search of authentic folk sounds; it unfolds largely in a series of concert halls and clubs on either side of the Iron Curtain. The two lovers are Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a conductor and pianist reluctantly subsumed into the Party-state propaganda machine, and Zula (Joanna Kulig), a seemingly apolitical chanteuse who joins his troupe as an escape from her abusive father.
The Cold War defines their romance, in more ways than one. As performers in service of the state, Wiktor and Zula enjoy at once a privileged position in the system and a clear view of its dysfunction. In any case, the Party dictates the terms of their life. Their early glimpses of the West come through state-arranged propaganda junkets; their budding romance is watched jealously by an apparatchik who inquires whether Wiktor tunes into Radio Liberty; their creative freedom is constrained by the diktats of local officials. After the troupe’s first performance, of authentic Polish folk material, the local Party boss demands that the choir sing more about Stalinist land reform.
Given the early trajectory of Cold War, one might expect a straightforward morality play from there: a tale of doomed lovers who yearn to breathe free in the West but up end crushed by a Communist regime. But Pawlikowski is after something more nuanced, and more timely, than that. Cold War, the work of a native son reflecting on his parents’ history, is really about Poland’s post-Cold War experience—a reflection on the fixedness of identity, and the limits of reinvention in a new land.
The turn comes when both Wiktor and Zula do eventually make it West: to Paris, specifically, where they land enviable careers as a pianist and jazz singer. Filming in boxy black-and-white, Pawlikowski invests this couple with plenty of old Hollywood glamour. Both become vivid likenesses of Western artistes: Wiktor a dapper bohemian, dating a French poet and tinkling keys alongside American jazz bands; Zula, an elegant lounge singer in a slinky black dress. The camera eyes them like movie stars: circling Zula as she stands in the spotlight singing jazz ballads, or following her every move, enraptured, as she drunkenly sashays to “Rock Around the Clock.”
But the outward glamour of Wiktor and Zula’s lives stands in contrast to their own experience in the West. No sooner do they settle into a new way of life than they rebel against it. Zula resents being talked up—and talked down to—at cocktail parties as an Eastern émigré. Wiktor finds gainful employment writing schlocky film scores but appears listless, disconnected from his own musical roots. So, too, does Zula: by film’s end, she has become a garish simulacrum of a Western singer, donning a black wig as she comically performs alongside a mariachi band.
As Cold War goes on, it becomes a story about the dislocations of identity—about East Europeans striving to be Western but failing, and feeling the tug of home. “Why would you want to leave here?” a bureaucrat at the Polish embassy in France asks Wiktor, as he contemplates a return home. “I’m Polish,” Wiktor replies simply.
Cold War is skeptical about the ability of anyone to reinvent themselves, and wise about the ways that old affiliations tend to reassert themselves. Even Kaczmarek, a servile apparatchik who seems ever-ready to assent to the latest Party wisdom, is stirred by older loyalties. “Remember, Germans are still Germans,” he warns his musical troupe before a trip to the GDR, mere minutes before we see him trading platitudes about socialist brotherhood with his East German comrades.
To create new identities, the film suggests, others must be crushed, or at least quietly suppressed. In Poland, the unstudied folk tunes of the early scenes give way to Stalinist anthems; in Paris, Wiktor and Zula have to adapt their homegrown talents to the foreign sounds of jazz and rock. One process is more coercive than the other, but for Wiktor and Zula the alienating effect is much the same.
Yet old traditions, old habits of mind, have a way of resurfacing. The film obliquely nods to Poland’s repressed religiosity, presaging its return. In one unguarded moment, Zula admits her belief in God to Wiktor, and one of their final rendezvous is at an abandoned, hollowed out church in the countryside, where a faded fresco of Christ can be seen, his eyes gazing out, just barely visible amid all the rubble.
Squint just a little, and Cold War resolves into a vision of modern-day Poland: a country that has thrown off its Communist heritage but finds itself discontented and adrift in a West it once so longed to join. Yet the film does not map easily onto either side of Poland’s culture wars. Neither the Europhile Left nor the nationalist Right will find easy vindication here.
That has not stopped the latter from trying. When I first saw Cold War at a preview screening in December, it was proudly introduced by a representative of the Polish Embassy, who singled out its clear-eyed treatment of the communist period. This was perhaps to be expected, given the film’s glimpses of the era’s repressions and the Polish government’s aggressive focus on de-communization. Yet it was also ironic, considering that the same government has elsewhere rebuked Pawlikowski for insufficiently stigmatizing communism, among other artistic crimes against Poland. His previous film Ida, much acclaimed in the West, was denounced by Polish nationalists for implying Polish complicity in the Holocaust; when it aired on Polish television, it was prefaced by a politicized introduction that sought to discredit its supposedly “pro-Jewish” point of view.
“The current government in Poland interprets everything based on two very simple criteria,” the director has complained. “Once there was absolute evil, and now everything is great. We are noble. The communists were terrible. There is no room for nuances.” These sound like the words of an urbane Polish liberal, outraged by the Law and Justice Party’s abuses of history. Yet elsewhere Pawlikowski has defended the party’s approach to historical controversies, including the infamous “Polish death camps” law, which effectively criminalized the use of that term. He has bristled, too, at Western attempts to pigeonhole him as a chronicler of Polish guilt and malaise: “People in the West who interpreted my film as a film about Polish guilt,” he has said about the Oscar-winning Ida, “are as stupid as people in Poland who interpreted it as an anti-Polish film—it’s reductive.”
If Pawlikowski has a conflicted attitude toward his country’s history, so does his latest film. Cold War, like Ida, cannot be distilled into a simple polemic. It offers neither the didactic comforts of a morality play about communism nor the redemptive arc of a love-conquers-all romance with a happy ending in the West. Its characters are torn between the false nostalgia of a past that cannot be repeated and the reality of a present that has proven disappointing.
That tension is what gives Cold War its pulse, and its contemporary resonance. Poland’s liberals sometimes argue that today’s Law and Justice Party is a “neo-authoritarian” movement recalling the communist repressions of yore; PiS partisans argue no less strenuously that it is bureaucrats in Brussels who resemble the old Party overlords. Both sides, who once might have joined hands in Solidarity, rebuke each other with a common enemy from the past; neither, really, has a compelling vision for the future. In these bitter recriminations they are not so unlike Wiktor and Zula: thrown together in a shared experience of adversity, but divided and disillusioned whenever they try to make a joint life together.
The film’s final notes offer little hope that those differences can be resolved. Unsatisfied with the West, Wiktor and Zula make a homecoming that is self-defeating. Nostalgia cannot save them or restore their past life; their return to roots is shallow. The movie culminates in a quasi-re-enactment of Catholic sacramental tradition that is in fact a perversion of it—an act of communion that is a literal dead end.
“The end of history,” Francis Fukuyama wrote famously, “will be a very sad time.” Wiktor and Zula, who grow so disaffected with the West’s comforts as to make the bitterest of homecomings, would understand that sentiment. You can go West, but you can’t go home again.