Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War has been praised for its’ cinematography, ‘smoky’ ‘monochrome’ sensuality, and ‘Jeanne Moreaux-like’ leading actress Joanna Kulig’s sex appeal. All true – but pretty superficial. Little is spoken of the feminism of Pawel Pawlikowski’s lens and writing, his exploration of gender and class power dynamics. He tells a story of not just a ‘doomed couple’ – loosely based on his parents – but two subjects being formed, co-opted and exploited by a historical period of deeply ideological and violent state-enforced identity-formation and power-building. Throughout the movie, they both are searching for agency, freedom and their authentic selves.
It’s post-holocaust, post-war Poland in a freezing 1950s winter, and a musical dance troupe Mazurek based on peasant folk song and culture is being curated by musicians Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza). They audition and recruit an 18 year old chancer – Zula (Joanna Kulig) who spuriously claims to be from the mountains. She’s a domestic violence survivor from an impoverished background. Her rough diamond voice becomes an inspiration, guide and kind of aural lens for the development of the story, as she and Wiktor fall in ever more turbulent love.
The signature song of the film – the children’s folk song, Dwa Serduszka, Cztery Oczy (Two Hearts, Four Eyes) – becomes a theme for the dialectical relationship between self and other, separated not just by two empires but by class and gendered culture in post-war Poland, as relevant then as it is today. The refrain ‘crying because you can’t meet each other’ is more than about the pain of Wiktor and Zula in not being able to physically see each other through the iron curtain; they also struggle to see each other, in large part due to Wiktor’s unconscious rank and privilege as an older, urbane, middle class (at one point Zula spits ‘bourgois fucking wanker’ at him), music composer and creator, a Svengali to his Zula, who doesn’t want to be a muse. It is Wiktor who is confident enough to escape Poland. Confident enough to tell Zula that: ‘All I know is that love is love and that’s enough’. But is it enough?
From the start of this story, we witness Zula subjected to objectification – first by her father who tried to rape her, then by Wiktor and Irena who try to mould her into a folk princess. Next comes Communist Party enforcer Lech Kaczmarek (played to perfection by Borys Szyc) who makes advances at her and forces her to rat on Wiktor, before coercing her to ‘sing for Stalin’ . She’s then forced to perform the role of wife in order to gain an Italian passport to leave Poland, and then moulded again by Wiktor, music producer Michel (Cedric Kahn) and to a certain extent Wiktor’s ex-girlfriend writer Julienne (Jeanne Balibar) whose poetry she is forced to perform despite not ‘getting it’ or even liking it.
Pawlikowski’s hybridisation of Polish child folk song, grand orchestral choruses, loose blues, and French jazz pays tribute to music as an art form that can cross borders, the role of the composer as translator, and innovator, breaking out of tradition, state power and expectations. Is Zula a passenger, a willing participant or a creative force unto herself through this medium? It never seems to fully be the latter despite her obvious talent and capacity for genius.
Zula’s character, despite her precociousness, vibrant sexuality, powerful voice and international travel has less agency in Cold War than Pawlikowski’s Ida Lebenstein, in which the main protagonist in the eponymous Ida, a cloistered nun who discovers she is Jewish. Ida exercises choice, agency, determination. Ultimately, the film ends with an open question as to which futures this agency opens up for Ida. We don’t know if following her sexual liaison with saxophonist Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), she is storming back to the convent to reclaim her identity as a ‘wife of god’, getting her things to come back to be with Lis, or to simply forge her own way elsewhere. Either way, alone or with God or Lis, she is her own woman on her own mission.
Zula the domestic violence survivor, with a suspended sentence for stabbing her father hanging over her, and navigating communist Poland and divided Europe, shows far more vulnerability. The ending – (I won’t spoil it) – could be interpreted as Zula taking charge and power in her relationship with Wiktor. But the choice she appears to make for them both actually rejects hers and his lives and identities altogether, with no means to revive, re-make or redefine them. In this sense, Cold War the film underscores the tragedy of Cold War the historical chapter, which serves both as setting and allegorical framework.
Pawlikowki frames a relationship and period of intense conflict, with sophistication, beauty, compassion, comedy and political dexterity. The glimpse of an underage girl half naked in Michel’s bed, more evidence of the patriarchy and objectification rife in the Paris scene; the male gaze falling, again and again, on Zula as she hollowly sips a cocktail at her album launch. Lech’s snarky comment about one of the Mazurek performers’ being ‘too dark’ for the troupe – a reference to her apparent Jewishness – serves as an ominous sign of the future white supremacist and antisemitic tropes that the communist regime would develop, intensifying into the 1968 crisis where some 25,000 Jewish communist party leaders, intellectuals, artists and students were forced out of the country as part of the party’s own internal crisis and struggle to hold on to power.
Cold War is not just a love story, it’s a hate story too. Multiple inter-personal, cultural, social and state power dynamics collide with staggering grace and subtlety. But throughout, it is music as a messenger, an intuition, a border demolishing force that is the most central protagonist and narrator throughout the film. It is the creativity, plurality and love communicated through music that stays with us as an abiding hope for communion, both between two people, and possibly everyone.