by Nash Croker
There’s definitely too many white men on the left with younger, teenaged girlfriends. They’re often the sort to have a blindspot on race when it comes to their critique of capitalism. They will also probably be taking them to go see Pawel Pawlikowski’s latest - ‘Cold War’ (2018).
That’s because the film follows the obsessive romance of an older man to the destruction of a vulnerable young woman. Set in Soviet Poland, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is the older, wealthier, better connected employer of Zula (Joanna Kulig). The story of the near murder of her father - he had attempted to rape her as a child - appears to be the extent of their flirting. We are quickly taken into eerily silent sex scenes, caught between Zula’s manic behaviours (singing as she floats down a river, spying on Wiktor for the government). She pledges her life to him, and during their musical troupe’s trip to East Berlin, he plots their escape to the West.
The power dynamic of the relationship is off-putting. Wiktor’s colleague Irena (Agata Kulesza) points this out immediately in an engaging opening performance before she disappears from the story. It’s obvious and Pawlikowski revels in it. Wiktor resents Zula’s sexual freedom (she’s openly sleeping with other men), and when they meet a few years later in Paris he asks her “why you never came”, it's definitely about sex; Zula says she didn’t feel she was “good enough” and that power dynamic is reinforced.
We then follow the pair’s brief meetings across both sides of the ‘Iron Curtain’. Zula never seems as happy, especially in the West. Wiktor, though, desperately follows her, even so far as being sent to a Soviet prison camp and losing his fingers (and livelihood of the piano). Finally she gives up her singing career, husbands and her life - the two commit suicide in the ruins of an abandoned Polish church.
It’s unfortunate that an early critique of the use of national folk culture as Soviet propaganda is sidelined by a greasy older male’s relationship with a manic pixie dream girl. The film’s opening minutes see Irena and Wiktor travelling through the wartorn Polish countryside recording folk songs. This subplot only really lasts for a third of the film, with a peasant girl’s song about her forbidden love for a boy becoming the central plot of the story. Yet, it is how this folk song travels through East and West that is the more interesting journey.
The folk songs that are recorded by Irena and Wiktor are recomposed in grand national opera houses to become propaganda for the new Soviet state culture. It is a fascinating critique of state-led production of national culture in the USSR. The peasant folk songs of suffering (at least those presented in the film) are polished and recreated in grander classical forms. They then come to serve as Soviet state propaganda - a large banner of Stalin is unfurled above the performers in one scene - preserved in the communist political culture that sought to erode divisions of national identity.
The inauthenticity of this cultural production is emphasised in Wiktor’s desire to escape West. The fascist aesthetics of the performances and the Soviet state bureaucrat’s aggressive anti-semitism are almost overdone. But this is a black and white film called ‘Cold War’ and thus so much as it focuses on the USSR it says as much about the West in its negative. Pawlikowski’s critique of Soviet cultural production is as much an assertion of western cultural practice itself. Wiktor is freed by the ragtime and jazz he experiences in Parisian bars. This Western music is expressive, authentic, unforced - it's free.
Pawlikowski is at pains to express this cultural freedom in romantic freedom. The couple unite to record love songs in the West. The bars in Paris are seemingly full of interracial couples, in contrast to uniform individuals of the Soviet audiences. Here, individual identity is valued, not repressed - defending the extraneous introduction he gives of Zula at a party, Wiktor says he “wanted to give you more color”. Yet she does not share his love of the West and escapes back home. Western culture does not seem to offer the same freedom for Zula as it does Wiktor.
While the pair were still translating the same folk songs to Western musical form, Pawlikowski never truly interrogates the artificiality of the popularization of these forms as he does so emphatically for the Soviets. The music that Wiktor encounters in his Parisian cafes is Black music - jazz and ragtime. In one of the film’s best scenes, Zula torments Wiktor by dancing on the tables of a bar to “Rock Around the Clock”, an early rock and roll hit heavily influenced by the blues. These Western musical cultures are Black musical forms popularized by white musicians.
For a film about emigre art, it hints at but never really confronts what this means for the West. Yet Blackness is everywhere. A Black musician plays in Paris but none speak beyond the recorded voice of Black singers that frequent the scenes in the West. That same bar where the Black musician plays is called ‘L’eclipse’, bringing new light to Wiktor’s comment about adding “more color” to Zula. The colorblindness of Pawlikowski’s black and white film is amplified further by the bizarre ‘Mexican’ musical performance in Warsaw by Zula and several white musicians in sombreros.
If the Soviet state’s artificial production of national culture comes from peasant folk tales of sadness, then much of 20th century Western musical culture comes from black culture - that of the social condition of slavery and segregation. This Western culture may seem more free and expressive, but it is rooted in the denial of freedom. Western emigre art is the culture of African Americans seeking some form of aesthetic and intellectual freedom in Europe. It is this other side of this Cold War division of emigre art that is never truly interrogated by Pawlikowski.
Wiktor’s obsessive romance of Zula is controlling. Following him to the West does not bring her the same freedom it brought him. Pawlikowski is so keen to compare the cultural freedom of the West with romantic freedom, but Zula does not seem to feel either. Whether controlled by Wiktor’s desires or not, the hidden unfreedom of Western musical culture appears in the unlikely expression of their doomed romance. This guilty Western conscience of the true root of its culture is symbolized in the pair’s return home to Poland for their joint suicide.
Western culture of the 20th century is rooted in the forced migration of African slaves and their continued bondage. For the emigre, the West is not freedom. The ensuing racial guilt is Pawlikowski’s ‘Cold War’ blindspot.