Reviews — From the January 2019 issue

Home Truths

Paweł Pawlikowski’s search for roots

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Cold War, directed by Paweł Pawlikowski. Amazon Studios. 85 minutes.

In 1949, the Soviet-­controlled Polish Communist Party, which had come to power in rigged elections two years earlier, moved decisively to suppress an institution it had long considered an enemy of the Polish people. Polska YMCA, the Polish branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association, had been banned by Hitler following the Nazi invasion in 1939, but relaunched itself soon after the Red Army liberated the country from the Germans at the end of the war. Although the organization’s primary mission involved holding classes and distributing foreign aid, its various facilities across the country, many of which were furnished with cafeterias and dance halls, soon became social hot spots in a country as starved for cultural stimulation as it was for food. The Polish novelist Leopold Tyrmand, who rented a room at the Warsaw ­YMCA, one of the few buildings not reduced to rubble by the Nazis, described the place as a beacon of “genuine civilization in the middle of a devastated, troglodyte” city, a venue where young people in particular would gather in the postwar years to hear live jazz and wrest what pleasure they could from the dismal scenario into which history had plunged them. As such, it was wholly unacceptable to the Polish Communists, whose goal, as they saw it, was the construction not simply of a new society but of a new kind of human being. If they tolerated jazz, dancing, and free association outside the auspices of the party, who knew what might be next? On the government’s order, Communist youth activists wielding hammers swarmed the building and destroyed its collection of American records. The tenants were hounded from their rooms. Communism, Tyrmand wrote, was “devouring” Poland. Before long, the Y and its treasures had been “chewed up, digested, and excreted.”

A still from Cold War © Opus Film

A still from Cold War © Opus Film

Cold War, the remarkable new film by Paweł Pawlikowski, opens in the year of Polska ­YMCA’s demise, and centers on an organization that the Polish authorities hoped would furnish the nation’s youth with a more edifying cultural diet. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza), a pair of fortysomething musicologists who appear to be at the tail end of a romance (very little is ever stated outright in Pawlikowski’s narratives), are on a government-sponsored mission to record traditional folk songs in the country’s bleakly picturesque hinterland. Nice work if you can get it, especially in the Polish People’s Republic. Driven from one antediluvian village to the next by Lech (Borys Szyc), their ideologically immaculate government overseer, Wiktor and Irena set up their recording equipment and stand by as the locals step forward to belt out a series of boisterous, wailing songs about love and death, God and the devil, drunkenness and sobriety—hardly classic Soviet themes.

These pieces are to form the repertoire of a new all-singing, all-­dancing folk ensemble composed of rural youths, called Mazurek (based on the real-life Mazowsze group, members of which perform in the film). A dilapidated country estate (we learn nothing of its previous occupants) has been given over to Wiktor and Irena to hold auditions, and a kind of Soviet America’s Got Talent ensues. Among the young hopefuls is Zula (Joanna Kulig), an assertive and voluptuous blonde in her late teens or early twenties who, it’s revealed in a snippet of overheard dialogue, is not from around these parts. Instead of a folk song, Zula chooses to perform a ballad from a Russian movie—the first of several subtle indications that a certain amount of top-down intervention is often required to make “the voice of the people” sound authentic. “Thank you,” says Irina, cutting Zula off after she senses Wiktor’s extramusical interest in the girl. But Zula will not be silenced so easily. “And the chorus!” she says, unflustered, before plowing ahead.

Shot in the same luminous monochrome and boxy aspect ratio as Pawlikowski’s previous offering, Ida (2013), which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Cold War recalls the visual aesthetic of the Polish Film School, the cinematic movement, inspired in part by Italian neorealism, that flourished in the period of mild liberalization that began in 1956, three years after Stalin’s death. In Cold War, Poland’s submission for this year’s Best Foreign Language Oscar, Pawlikowski’s camera moves more than in the meditative Ida, panning across stages and auditoriums to capture the thrill of live performance. Nevertheless, there is still an abundance of static shots; Pawlikowski has a painterly sense of composition and a fondness for mischievous sleights of hand, though he is far too interested in storytelling for this ever to become mannered or complacent. At the after-party on the evening of Mazurek’s triumphant Warsaw debut in 1951 (unlike most aspects of life in the Eastern Bloc, the film moves briskly and efficiently through time), Wiktor and Irena, located at the bottom of the frame, appear to be standing with their backs to a banquet hall whose teeming depths recede far into the distance. It is only when Lech approaches to congratulate them on their success that we realize they are standing in front of a mirror staring out at the crowd we see reflected behind them—an apt gesture toward the larger perspectival shifts that will arrive later when the film’s setting moves from East to West (and back again). If we look carefully (Pawlikowski likes to alternate between extreme close-ups and wide, densely peopled shots in which it takes a moment to locate his principals), we can see Zula among the crowd, her chin resting on her fist as she stares at Wiktor, the man of the hour, with unguarded longing. They begin an affair in the next scene.

The powerful older man who seduces his beautiful young subordinate may sound like a stale premise; the way in which their relationship unfolds is rather more unexpected. Zula is anything but pliant and accommodating. Early on, Wiktor asks her about a rumor he has heard: is it true that she killed her father? “He mistook me for my mother, so I used a knife to show him the difference,” she responds. Later, as the two lovers recline in a field of long, wind-tousled grass, Zula breaks the Edenic mood by confessing she’s been informing on Wiktor to Lech. He is understandably furious, but Zula, pragmatic to a fault, doesn’t seem to see what all the fuss is about. “I’m on probation,” she says. “I wouldn’t have got in otherwise.”

Though naturally steeped in politics, the film is thankfully devoid of the anxious historical signifiers and patronizing monologues about freedom, truth, and human dignity that tend to mar American movies about the East–West conflict. Wiktor and Zula are neither obedient Communist drones nor fire-breathing dissidents; they see the miserable results of the system under which they live, but they are also not immune to threats of violence or the perks and kickbacks that come with following instructions. When a party official suggests that the Mazurek ensemble expand its range to include some numbers about land reform and the glory of Stalin, that is what they do.

Still, Wiktor wants out, and he seems to have persuaded Zula to come with him. The film’s first act reaches its climax at the 1952 International Festival of Youth in East Berlin, an extravaganza showcase for the wonders of Communism, to which Mazurek has been invited. On the train, Wiktor goes over the plan to cross into the Western zone of the city (at the time, the border was still open) while everyone else is distracted by post-performance celebrations. When the moment arrives, however, he is left waiting at their designated meeting place. In an excruciating series of alternating shots, we cut between Wiktor, out in the cold, smoking cigarette after cigarette, and Zula, suddenly pinioned by doubt, surrounded by rollicking party grandees. Slowly her face hardens into a mask of resignation. After checking his watch a final time, Wiktor bows his head, hunches his shoulders, and sets out for the lonely freedom of the West.

Until recently it would have been a stretch to rank Pawlikowski among European cinema’s elite. The exponent of an eloquent if at times somewhat conventional visual language, he had seemed more journeyman than auteur, a director capable of impressive work but without anything strange or distinctive enough to call a vision. He was always growing, though, always willing himself to expand. If his films have a master theme it is the search for roots; certainly that is the master theme of his career as a whole.

Pawlikowski was born in Warsaw in 1957, the son of a Catholic ballerina and a Jewish doctor who kept his ethnicity a secret. “There were bullet holes in the courtyard I grew up in,” he has said. “Warsaw was once a battleground, then it became a morgue.” In 1971, after his parents had divorced, his mother took him to London on what he thought was a holiday. They never returned. Whatever the pains of exile may have been, En­gland seems to have suited him. He studied literature and philosophy at Oxford, and then began working for the BBC. His first films were a series of documentaries about life in post-Soviet Russia and Eastern Europe. A bit like Ryszard Kapuscinski’s books of literarily augmented reportage, their approach had less to do with gathering facts and constructing narratives than with capturing the surreal atmosphere of a region in the midst of seismic historical change.

In Serbian Epics (1992), we follow Radovan Karadži c, the president of Republika Srpska, the autonomous Serbian region within Bosnia-­Herzegovina, on his quest to unify that enclave with Serbia. Karadžic, who would go on to order the massacre of eight thousand Muslim Bosniaks at Srebrenica, emerges as an unstable yet intransigent demagogue caught in the grip of an ethno­nationalist fever dream. One staggering sequence shows him in a dapper suit and overcoat, surrounded by uniformed soldiers, standing on a hilltop overlooking the besieged city of Sarajevo. As soldiers pepper the crumbling high-rises with machine-gun fire, who should drop by but Eduard Limonov, the famous Russian writer and wanderer who’d made no secret of his admiration for Miloševi c and the cause of ethnic purification. In broken En­glish, Karadžic recites a poem he wrote about Sarajevo in his younger days as Limonov, sporting a leather jacket and outsized sunglasses, murmurs his appreciation.

Last Resort (2000), Pawlikowski’s first feature film, appears to draw on the director’s personal experience of emigration. Tanya (Dina Korzun), a Russian divorcée in early middle age, and her young son, Artyom (Artyom Strenlikov), arrive in London to meet Tanya’s En­glish fiancé. When he fails to show up at the airport, Tanya and Artyom are forced to apply for political asylum. This process could take anywhere from three to sixteen months, during which mother and son are to be confined in a block of flats as grim as any you might encounter in the former Soviet Union. Caught in a bureaucratic web, subject to round-the-clock surveillance, forced to queue in endless lines for inedible provisions, Tanya and Artyom discover that life at the bottom of the social food chain is much the same whichever hemisphere you happen to have washed up in. A local Tory councillor for the seaside town of Margate, where the film was shot, called it “derogatory.”

But Pawlikowski was not entirely impervious to the charms of his adopted homeland. My Summer of Love (2004), a lesbian idyll starring Emily Blunt in her cinematic debut, takes place in a scenic Yorkshire valley. Blunt’s character, Tamsin, is rich, bored, and manipulative. One day, out on her horse, she meets the working-class Mona (Natalie Press) who, after the death of her parents, has been left in the care of her older brother, an ex-con newly converted to evangelical Christianity. Tamsin and Mona have an acid trip of an affair (they particularly enjoy playing flirtatious pranks on Mona’s puritanical brother), but the comedown ending is never really in doubt. The same is true of The Woman in the Fifth (2011), an abysmal psychological thriller, in which Ethan Hawke plays the novelist Tom Ricks, a stilted narcissist at whom the women of Paris throw themselves like so many delirious groupies. True, the women turn out to be Ricks’s fantasy, but you still have to sit there and look on as the fantasy plays out.

Watching The Woman in the Fifth today, you keep wanting to ask: How did Pawlikowski end up with his next film, the peerless Ida (2013)? It is tempting to look for clues in the director’s biography. In 2006, Pawlikowski’s wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He abandoned the film he was working on at the time to care for her in her final months and raise their two children. After her death and the children’s departure for university, he moved first to Paris and then back to London before finally settling in the city of his birth. “I needed Warsaw because it’s so clearly shaped by history,” he told the Guardian in 2014. Unlike the Western locales where he had set and made his previous feature films, Warsaw was haunted by the specter of a recent totalitarian past; taking its full measure seemed to call forth Pawlikowski’s deepest energies. Around the same time, he also learned that his father was Jewish and that his grandmother had been murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz.

To call Ida an artistic reckoning with this personal trauma would be a gross understatement; the film’s stunningly succinct eighty-two minutes seem to encompass and transmute all of Polish history. We are in the early 1960s. Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), who was orphaned during World War II, has spent the entirety of her young life in a convent whose daily rituals seem to have changed little in centuries. A week before taking her vows, she learns of the existence of a previously unknown aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), whom the mother superior tells her she must go see. Wanda—or “Red Wanda,” as she used to be known—turns out to be a former state prosecutor who, in the euphemistic words of a party official, helped to create a new Poland by “tenaciously exercising People’s justice.” The revolutionary fervor of Wanda’s youth is now in abeyance; marooned in the dreary police state she helped to build, the only passions that bind her to life are smoking, drinking, and picking up (and just as quickly discarding) men. Having devoted her best years to a god that failed, Wanda is concerned that Anna may be on the verge of making a similarly misguided commitment. What’s more, she has news for her niece: her name is not Anna but Ida, she is Jewish, and her parents were murdered during the final days of the war.

Ida and Wanda are at once archetypes—the Catholic and the Communist; the absolver and the judge—and carefully particularized human beings. As they return to Ida’s hometown in search of her parents’ killers, the two women affect each other in ways that neither could have anticipated. Wanda, the more forceful of the pair, finds herself gradually overpowered by the young woman whose simple piety she’d initially laughed at; Ida, though she refuses to rise to her aunt’s irreverent barbs (“This Jesus of yours adored people like me. Take Mary Magdalene . . .?”), is ultimately not unreceptive to Wanda’s suggestion that she first sample some of the worldly pleasures she’s about to forswear. Both of them are transformed, in turn, by what they uncover of the past. Ida’s parents, we learn, were murdered by opportunistic neighbors who’d lived near them for decades and now occupy their old house. Watching Pawlikowski’s bickering odd couple traverse the vast burial ground that is postwar Poland is one of the strangest, most unsettling experiences in contemporary cinema. The director’s decision not to represent the atrocities themselves but instead evoke them indirectly by means of a landscape devoid of monuments and a people committed to silence is a masterstroke. It would be reductive to describe Ida as a Holocaust movie, and yet it is difficult to think of a recent work of art in any medium that so startlingly defamiliarizes a subject that has become such a staple of literature and film.

If Ida set its sights on a past that Poles have long evaded and denied, Cold War is a journey into what, at mid-century, was a radically uncertain future. Early in the film, Zula tells Wiktor that she will love him until the end of the world—which, given the Soviets’ recent detonation of their first atomic bomb, on August 29, 1949, didn’t seem very far away. At this point, it appears as though we are watching a story about a romance harassed and interrupted by history; with time, it begins to look like history may be what’s keeping the romance going. In 1954, two years after Wiktor crosses into West Berlin, we catch up with him in Paris, where he is playing piano at a jazz club to make ends meet and dating Juliette (Jeanne Balibar), a cosmopolitan French poet. (“Have you been whoring again?” she asks him after he comes home late one night. “I haven’t got enough money for whores,” he responds.) Outwardly, Wiktor’s life couldn’t be more different from the one he led in Poland, but the past is nipping at his heels. Zula is in town with Mazurek and the two old lovers meet for a drink. Wiktor wants to know why she didn’t come with him. “I didn’t think it would work,” she says. After he presses her for more, she tells him that she didn’t want to go because she knew she would never have had the opportunity to leave without him. In other words, she wants to be an autonomous entity, not a mere satellite. They embrace, and Zula walks back to her hotel alone.

Next it is Wiktor’s turn to drop in on Zula on the other side of the Iron Curtain. In 1955, he pays a visit to Tito’s Yugoslavia, where Mazurek is performing a revamped set list. (The songs now have “more zing,” Lech tells Wiktor in a strenuously polite exchange outside the theater.) Zula sees Wiktor sitting in the audience and is briefly thrown off, finishing a dance routine half a beat behind the rest of the troupe. Before they can meet, though, Wiktor, who as a deserter to the West is persona non grata in this part of the world, is bundled by a group of snarling muscle­men onto a train headed back to Paris; he is lucky they aren’t sending him to Warsaw, they say, where he would find himself in real trouble. During the following night’s performance, Zula notices Wiktor’s empty seat and winces at the absence.

The leading duo’s love for each other is vivid, passionate, at times borderline hysterical, but how solid are its foundations? The suggestion that their mutual enchantment is sustained by the ongoing drama of severance and reunion, that in more peaceful circumstances it would soon fizzle, hovers over the film like a dark cloud; indeed, the only time we see them living together for an extended period, in Paris in the late 1950s, things don’t go so well. This can be chalked up in part to their disparate experiences of cultural displacement. While Wiktor is quick to embrace the role of artist-in-exile, Zula, who reinvents herself as a French-style chanteuse—albeit one with no small degree of charme slave—resents what she sees as the contortions and impostures that are necessary to please her Western audience. “What did you tell him?” she demands to know of Wiktor after she breaks off a conversation with one of his new friends at a bustling Parisian party. “That I killed my father? That I danced for Stalin at the Kremlin?” Relax, Wiktor says: this kind of exotic detail is catnip for the French. “Edith Piaf worked in a brothel, and they love her all the more for it.”

Music, like love, tends to put us in a sentimental mood; we like to think of both as spontaneous and unmediated, a pure expression of feeling in a world dominated by pretense. Cold War, at once a musical comedy and an epic romance, doesn’t shortchange us on the pleasures of either, but it is also bracingly clear-sighted. The part Zula plays in France—that of the sultry nightclub chanteuse—is no less synthetic than the idealized peasant girl she impersonates back home, even if the latter is mandated by a repressive state. Music, Pawlikowski gently suggests, is always performing ideological work, whether it’s in the service of a totalitarian regime or the flattering self-image of the West. As for love, Zula discovers that it can be hard to keep up outside the cultural context in which it first took root. “Believe in yourself,” Wiktor urges her during a trying session in a recording studio. “I do,” she replies. “It’s you I don’t believe in.”

The film ends in 1964, but it is full of echoes of contemporary Poland, a nation apparently struggling to believe in itself as a part of Europe. Today, after more than two decades of liberal democracy, a period that has seen dramatic economic growth and the steady expansion of individual rights, the country seems to be sliding back toward authoritarianism. The conservative Law and Justice party, which came to power in 2015, has turned the nation’s public media into a party propaganda organ, radically undermined the independence of the judiciary, and passed a bill outlawing statements that blame Poland for what it calls “Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich.” A 2012 survey found that 62 percent of the population believe that Poles suffered as much as Jews during World War II, up from thirty-two percent ten years earlier. According to a poll conducted in March, a third of the country wants Poland to leave the European Union. Meanwhile the real-life Mazowsze troupe, which for years had been hobbling along close to bankruptcy, just received a large infusion of government cash. Nationalistic mythmaking of the kind Mazowsze specializes in clearly struck the new authorities as something that ought to be encouraged.

In the final act of Cold War, Zula once again returns to her homeland and Wiktor once again follows. Like Ida, who ends up choosing the convent over the world, the lovers at the heart of Pawlikowski’s new film forsake the ambivalence of liberty for a familiar confinement. Were they ever really free to choose otherwise? Or, suspended between East and West, like the Polish nation itself, was it only a matter of time before they were brought back down by the weight of an unbearable history?

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, a former senior editor
of Harper’s Magazine, is a writer living 
in Brooklyn.

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