At least in our collective imaginations, the Communist era in Eastern Europe is always in black and white. This is partially because of the legacy of great black-and-white films by Polish masters such as Andrzej Wajda and Wojciech Has and also because we’ve been conditioned to think of the Stalinist years as perpetually gray and depressing.
In his new film, Cold War (which premiered in competition at Cannes on Thursday), the Polish-born director Pawel Pawlikowski (who made his early features in Britain) presents a nuanced portrait of life behind the fabled Iron Curtain from 1949-1964, while evoking the bleak reality of those times by shooting the film (as was true of Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winning Ida) in sepia tones.
Although Pawlikowski can obviously not evade confronting the ideological stupidity and bureaucratic blunders of life under Stalinism, Cold War is primarily a love story set against the backdrop of Polish Communism. An intimate epic that transports its characters to a number of countries—East Germany, France and Yugoslavia in addition to Poland—the melancholy narrative traces the ill-fated relationship of middle-aged Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a talented composer and pianist, and Zula (Joanna Kuling), the teenaged singer and dancer who becomes his muse and lifelong obsession.
Wiktor and Zula’s fates converge at an academy dedicated to preserving Polish folk music traditions. It’s also a place where young strivers endeavor to escape the boredom of state socialism by trying to make careers for themselves that will enable them to become upwardly mobile and travel abroad. The wily Zula is far from naïve. She knows that attracting Wiktor’s amorous attention might well ensure her a more exciting life than is usually possible for a girl from the wrong side of the tracks. (Despite the state’s denials, class distinctions were still very much operative in Communist Poland).
The political entanglements endemic to this state-sponsored musical academy makes Cold War more than just a bittersweet love story. The ideological gatekeeper at the school is a Stalinist flunky named Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), whose rigid fealty to the party line and conniving machinations help to doom Wiktor and Zula’s affair. Inspired by Mazowsze, an actual “state folk group of song and dance” that thrived in postwar Poland, the conservatory’s musical offerings look back to a romanticized rural past. Kaczmarek, no doubt responding to a directive from on high, is dissatisfied with the apolitical nature of the performances and soon demands that hymns to Stalin and agricultural reform be incorporated into the group’s repertoire. Ideology also trumps love in the sense that, in order to survive in the school’s pecking order, Zula is compelled to snitch on Wiktor and reveal some of his minor transgressions to Kaczmarek.
Despite the indignities of living under a totalitarian regime, Cold War demonstrates that escape mechanisms do not always provide ideal solutions. When Zula finally joins Wiktor in Paris, the couple’s already-far-from-idyllic relationship sours irredeemably. Zula finds Parisian salon culture suffocating and yearns to return to Poland. A stellar musician at home, she’s disgusted with the precious French lyrics Wiktor’s former mistress, who she sneeringly refers to as a “poetess,” pens for her failed first album. Even life among the apparatchiks in Poland begins to seem preferable.
A movie supremely conscious of film-historical precedents, Cold War sometimes seems like a recently rediscovered Polish film from the sixties—even though it would have been difficult to deal openly with most of this material at that historical juncture. At times, the many allusions to European films of previous decades comes off as slightly airless and derivative. Critics are already comparing Joanna Kulig’s turn as a troubled heroine to Jeanne Moreau’s performance in Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. Yet, as Pawlikowski observed at a press conference on Friday, he regards the notion of “homeland” as more of a cultural state of mind than an investment in a narrow conception of nationalism. Cold War proves that you can go home again, even though the emotional and political consequences might turn out to be devastating.