'Cold War' Reflects Today’s Refugee Issue Within Polish History

Dec 21, 2018

Polish-born filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski was born in Warsaw in 1967. When he was 14, his mother took him to London and to exile from Poland. He studied at Oxford, became a filmmaker in England, and in 2013 moved back to Poland to make the Oscar-winning Ida, about a young Polish girl in the early 1960s who is about to become a nun when she learns that she was born Jewish and her parents had been murdered during the war. There’s a hint of autobiography in Ida, because Pawlikowski himself learned in his teens that his grandmother was Jewish and had been murdered at Auschwitz by the Nazis.

Pawlikowski now lives in Paris, and his new film, Cold War, also has some autobiography lurking in the background. The movie is about the conflict of being an exile, caught between the Soviet bloc and the West from 1949 into the late 1960s, when the West offered freedom, art, jazz clubs, bars and restaurants – but Poland offered home.

Cold War opens in 1949 with collectors recording traditional songs in rural Poland. A young woman joins a troupe of singers whose government-directed task is to sing those songs in honor of the heroic Polish workers. Zula (Joanna Kulig) is good at it. She’s pretty and lively, and soon she falls in love with Viktor (Tomasz Kot), one of the group leaders. But soon after that, she stands him up for a rendezvous in East Berlin – they’ve planned to escape together – but Viktor is left to go it alone.

What follows are jumps in time, border crossings and passionate meetings. They both have other lovers – Zula marries at one point – but their deep-seated love is for each other.

Pawlikowski films Cold War in the old three-to-four aspect ratio and in black and white. He’s not looking for old-timeyness or nostalgia; Pawlikowski wants to show the world in the palette in which it was filmed and seen at the time. But the black and white also opens nuance in ways that color cannot. Color divides objects decisively, but with black and white, everything is on a scale, so distinctions between objects and people are less crystalline, and visually everything is somehow connected.

It’s beautiful in a Cold War kind of way, despite dreary weather, bleak streets, rubble left over from World War II and what seems to be constant winter. Vehicles and people struggle through the weather and the mud. And the tough conditions make it less surprising when the ideology of the state is shoved into the performances. It starts with the heroism and greatness of the poor and the workers. Then one of the young leaders of that music group in 1949 shows himself to be a good Stalinist as coldly suggests they follow the directive to make land reform and peace into central themes. And then, naturally, the choir finally must add lyrics about “wonderful Stalin.”  

Neither Vikor nor Zula make good Communists, though. They’re too passionate and too thoroughly in love. Exile is their struggle, and Cold War makes it hurt. Viktor goes to cafes in Berlin and Paris; when Zula joins him, she sings, and he plays jazz. They live in a garret, but it’s not romantic. They become homeless – meaning they have no place in the world. As Kaczmarek, the old toady from Poland, tells Viktor, he’s adrift in the West, and he is no longer a Pole. He hasn’t lived Polish life in a long time.

Krzysztof Zanussi, now 80 years old and still one of one of Poland’s great filmmakers, says that because the nation of Poland has been so often overrun, it’s the duty of Polish artists to come to grips with Polish history. Cold War does just that – for Poland, and for the rest of the world now grappling with refugees.

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