Cold War is an exquisitely filmed, critically acclaimed film by Paweł Pawlikowski about a late Stalinist era bandleader played by Tomasz Kot and his muse, a singer played by Joanna Kulig. While it lost the “Best Foreign Language” film Oscar to Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, it did manage to pull in close to 20 million dollars at the box office. In other words, while it didn’t play at the suburban multiplex, a lot of people in the English-speaking world saw it. So, is it worth 90 minutes of your time?
First of all, as mentioned above, the cinematography is beautiful. Each frame could be a painting. All through Cold War, I was constantly reminded of the German romantic era painter Caspar David Friedrich and, probably more significantly, of Wim Wenders’s great film Wings of Desire, easily the best film ever made about the Cold War and the division of Europe into East and West. Yet, unlike Wings of Desire, which managed to convey an enormous amount of romantic desire into a rather odd story about a fallen angel in Berlin and his love of a French circus performer, Cold War leaves me, well, cold.
The first 20 minutes of Cold War start off promising. It’s the late 1940s in the Polish countryside. We’re introduced to Dwa serduszka, a folk song about unrequited love. We first hear it performed by two working-class men playing accordions — the camera focuses on their dirty, rough hands so we know they’re working class. There’s not a lot of feeling. Both men are long past the days where unrequited love would have meant anything to them, but there is a certain authenticity. Poland has just survived a genocidal occupation by the German Army, which killed over a third of the population, and yet Polish folk culture has survived intact. We meet Wiktor Warski and Irena Bielecka, two theater directors whose relationship with the Polish Communist Party is left vague, who have been given funding to open up a music school in a dilapidated estate, battered, but left standing after the war. We also meet Lech Kaczmarek, a Stalinist functionary sent by the government to watch over them.
What Wiktor Warski and Irena Bielecka are doing in the Polish countryside is actually quite similar to the old New Deal Federal Theater Project, and you could probably do worse than to think of Warski as a Polish version of Orson Welles or Alan Lomax, a man from the educated elite given money by the government to preserve the country’s rich folk traditions and transform them into mass, popular entertainment. What makes the early parts of Cold War work is its vision of the genuinely Polish version of socialism that might have been. Kaczmarek, who’s actually a complex, sympathetic character in spite of his ultimately destructive role, gives a speech to Warski’s incoming students about how they’re the descendants of the Polish working class taking over one of the estates of their former masters and using it to make something beautiful. Warski finds his star performer, muse and lover in Zuzanna “Zula” Lichoń, and eventually they transform the simple Polish folk song we heard in the film’s opening into a transcendently luminous performance in Warsaw. Even Kaczmarek seems genuinely touched.
The Polish Communist Party, of course, doesn’t know a good, actually socialist, thing when they see it. They demand that Warski and Bielecka stop making art about unrequited love and the survival of Polish folk music, and add in a few things about agricultural policy, “world peace,” and the greatness of Comrade Stalin. Bielecka wants to fight for her original artistic vision. Kaczmarek unsurprisingly is more than willing to please the party leadership. Warski is strangely inert. While he obviously disapproves of the government’s plans to transform the thing he so lovingly nurtured for years into crude, Communist propaganda, he never says a word in support of Bielecka’s half-hearted rebellion. She disappears from the film altogether. He, at first, gets along by going along, and then defects to the West, ending up as a successful, if emotionally unfulfilled musician in Paris.
After Warski’s escape to the west, Cold War shifts from the difficulties of making art under a Stalinist government to the romantic relationship between Warski and Zuzanna Lichoń. Here’s where the film loses most of its steam. Joanna Kulig’s performance as Zuzanna has received most of the film’s critical acclaim, but I think the film’s narrative lets her performance down. I understand what Pawlikowski is trying to do. Zuzanna, who was supposed to defect to France along with Warski but who, at the last moment, lost her nerve, doesn’t love him as much as her loves her. He’s stupidly devoted to her. She can take him or leave him. As the film progresses, we begin to realize that Warski is becoming the peasant boy in Dwa serduszka, a man destroyed by unrequited love.
The problem I think is that Pawlikowski, who received funding from French and British producers, is trying to market Cold War in both Poland and the West. Zuzanna is fairly sympathetic as a “feminist” character, but in the end it’s not her story. It’s not a French, British or American story about a strong woman who breaks free of men and goes onto a successful music career in the west. It wants to be that, of course, but it also wants to be an Eastern European story about a doomed romantic love than can exist neither in Stalinist Poland nor in the capitalist west. By trying to be both it achieves neither. Tomasz Kot, who’s certainly a good-looking actor, as well as tall enough to be a minor Game of Thrones villain, simply doesn’t have the charisma to make Zuzana’s ultimate rejection of her cynical decision to marry Kaczmarek and give up artistic ideals she never really had in the first place believable. The ending seems empty, forced, and unnecessarily perverse.