When the central couple galvanizing Cold War’s spatial and temporal slippages first meet, their bodies are already both shrouded by and formed out of the desecrated husks of history; the weight of the world sacrifices their individuality, but the film also suggests that there is no such thing as pure individuality outside of the weave of the social, of history and of History. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is part of a mid-century Soviet government-sponsored research team looking to “preserve” the iconic cultural traditions of various ethnicities and nations now roped into the Soviet Empire, part of the Soviet Union’s project of multi-national socialism. Lula (Joanna Kulig) auditions for a role in a performance of Polish “traditional” music, already privy to the fact that her identity has been casted and essentialized as a “folk” person, construing her as bearing testament to the “essence” of the Polish “people,” not a sovereign person but an icon of a preserved past. Initially, the Communist government both draws from these identities and thoroughly flattens them, evaporating any sense of political acumen in the folk lyrics, locking them into the vise grip of a depoliticized time and casting the singers not as poets of modernity (capable of resisting as agents) so much as immobile totems to the past.
As the film fades in and out of various ephemeral meetings between Lula and Wiktor over the course of roughly a dozen years between the late 1940s and the early 1960s (quoting, elliptically, Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy in the process), Pawlikowski’s film offers a fragmentary vision of hesitant modernity, the birth pains of the late 20th century. It’s also an image of mid-century world relations not as an iron bipolarity (as it’s usually thought) but as a fluctuating seepage of restless people between and beyond artificial borders, a vision of personal and political exile that blurs physical and political expatriation with a kind of nomadism of the soul. The characters’ paucity of home gives way to a cosmopolitan home that is beyond the limited contours of the nation and nationalism.
Somehow both personal and transparently allegorical, Cold War consciously excises any macro view of political strife, striving for intimacy rather than monumentality. Initially, this tends toward a critique of the “ideological”, exposing the various complications and personal fluctuations of Wiktor and Lula that their positions as “bourgeois Soviet ethnomusicologist/composer” and “proletarian Polish folksinger” cannot accommodate. Both characters lean toward the individualist and cosmopolitan, resistant to the ideological pull of the Soviet government and reductive versions of Polish nationalism. Nominally, they choose to carve their own path. This skepticism of totality draws them to the West, and to some extent plays into broad, binarized assumptions of the austere East, where everyone is flattened into an ideological type in a system, and the scintillating West, where fluidity overflows and individual experience seeps outward beyond ideological categories.
But Cold War also blurs these binaries and ultimately positions the two figures in a lovelorn pas de deux that doesn’t so much transcend politics as personalize them and minorize them. Unable to settle into each others’ rhythms – to form any collective bond at all, any stability beyond their own itinerancy – the two figures don’t so much expose the political binaries of the era as intertwine with them and deflower the assumed purity of the various ideological systems they flow in and out of. Already beset by unclarified rumors about her past which may or may not be a calculated myth on her part, Lula eventually absconds from the Soviet Union in search of a wandering, wayward, Western identity that she sees as more willing to accommodate the modernist impulse to shapeshift one’s self. Refashioning herself as a sultry lounge singer in Paris, she is nonetheless always haunted and trailed by the conditions of existence that necessitate her sudden remakings of the self. Moving to the West only offers her the illusion of personal sovereignty, and maybe not even that. She’s relatively nomadic, but she can’t but be contaminated by the material conditions of an outside world she otherwise strives to glide through, like a movie star who exists a few inches above the world, unencumbered by it. But she can only pull from prior ideological costumes, various stylistic forms pulled apart and inverted for her purposes, eventually self-styling her look after other Western types no more liberated and individualistic than the one’s she was subjected to growing up.
What initially seems a fairly trite portrait of individual humans at odds with unflinching, tyrannical societal norms morphs into a deeper more reflective, portrait of people who functionally refuse to admit that their various stylistic garbs and temporary identities – the costumes they don to refuse the stability of “essence” imposed on them by various ideologies and “isms” – are naturally always-already embedded in ideologies. In resisting the systems around them, flaunting their illusion of personal transcendence of social boundaries, they only subsume themselves into those systems all the more so. Much like the French New Wave films that Pawlikowski plays homage to in the film’s back-half, Cold War understands identity not as any natural internal authenticity corrupted by “politics” and the “social” so much as a series of sometimes submerged, sometimes overt references, quotes, and hand-me-downs that are ritualistically donned and devoured, changed-out and syncretically accessorized. A constellation of past and present forms, a wardrobe of self borrowed from society becomes a vision of non-foundational identity striving for self-consciously iconographic status, and thus an illusion of foundationality.
On one hand, both Wiktor and Lula seem beholden to a certain mid-century type: the expat adopted-Westerner who roams through the land without a home. On the other, their self-conscious resistance to fixity dooms their relationship to play out in half-starts, in the sidelines, and in marginal meetings, minute escapades pressured to stand in for a fuller, more complete romance they cannot have. Lula’s cosmopolitan ethos that seems to transcend national and political ideologies also stretches her capacity to moor herself in a relationship. Likewise, Wiktor’s orientation is often purely ethnographic, as though he refuses to let go of the masculine compulsion to master and study the “other” (Lula) that subtends his identity as an anthropological researcher and man of objectivity. In this sense, although their influences are perhaps more variegated, the two protagonists can never transcend the worldly structures that are more than backdrop to their various meetings over the course of a dozen or so years across the fissures of mid-century global history. Authenticity, in this case, is neither full embodiment of a cultural “essence” nor the individual ability to fully divorce oneself from the social, from history. Whatever guise the two figures adopt, they seem doomed to an itinerant relationship. They’re furtive figures who, in believing they can transcend the specter of ideology, even of history, end up becoming spectral people themselves.
In that sense, Cold War is a story of ghosts in many forms. Shadow-presences in each other’s lives, the two protagonists are phantom impressions left lingering in the others’ identity. Wandering in between nations and disrupting borders, they also bear witness to shifts in mid-century European identity leaving past forms and old alliances in its wake. But the ghost of Hollywood cinema also lingers and seems to shape the characters even in its absence. Dwarfing them and boxing them in with the Academy aspect ratio, the film’s style suffuses the characters in the mid-century Hollywood forms that both characters are alternately reacting against and casting their identities out of. Rick Blaine (Hollywood’s most famous expat who pretends to exist beyond the political) and Ilsa Lund’s shadow seems to loom over them, haunting them like ghosts in the massive headspace that cinematographer Lukasz Zal’s camera ratio affords above the two figures, suggesting that so much is left unstated, existing well beyond their minds and the mind of the film that can only insinuate what it does not know. The two characters take center-stage in the narrative but cannot seem to encompass what the film wants to say about life, history, memory, and love.
Which bespeaks the film’s other ghosts: the world outside these two people, and their own lives outside their short, ephemeral encounters. Cold War, particularly in its vastly open frames and incessant narrative ellipses, seems thoroughly aware of what it is leaving out, and perhaps how conspicuously contorted its drama can be. It seems to question what happens when one love affair colonizes a wide geopolitical landscape and becomes our way of “personalizing” history at the expense of other stories left in the margins. In this sense, the film seems aware that the classically Hollywood-esque love affair (a love fashioned in the Western spirit of individuals contesting the limits of the social sphere) threatens to myopically encapsulate and thereby monopolize what ought to be a much wider, more democratic canvas. Cold War is conspicuously close to the vest, tightly-limned into the insular world of its characters, its narrative dearth designed as a storytelling famine in counterpoint to the gluttonous emotional and sensory appetites of most romances. It’s exceptionally sensuous cinema, but its aesthetic fecundity provocatively evokes various frailties and absences, various truths which can’t be dismissed by or exposed through the characters’ or the film’s style.
In point of fact then, Cold War is not even necessarily a portrait of their love, so much as a question mark about what magnetic attraction or cosmic joke draws these two figures to each other yet cannot frame their relationship as “love”. Sometimes it even feels like a classical Hollywood pantomime, as though the director has taken, say, Casablanca and both blown it out into the realm of wide-screen, rapturous beauty and thoroughly malnourished it, skeletalized its drama by enclosing the characters in a narrative world that almost blinds them to anyone else. The mystique and radiance that Wiktor and Lula emit even blind their full selves to each other. While the relationship self-consciously recalls the mid-century Hollywood love couples that the characters may be styling their never-quite-off-the-ground relationship after, it’s as though they’re actively striving for missed connections, preferring to live-out a toxic togetherness they can’t quite escape the pull of.
For that reason, Cold War is sensually ravishing but totally austere, every frame percolating with submerged emotion barely expressed and desire thwarted but not eroded. This slow, near-immobilized austerity would initially seem to formalize this static cling of history, as though modernity is itself conditioned on the consummation of the past, movement defined by immobility and vice-versa. (And, lest we forget, Pawlikowski’s films are resurrections of past cinematic forms first and foremost, rekindling not only the memory of various events but various cinematic styles that affect us in the present but don’t merely repeat like a broken record). But rather than simply a monolithic vision of the past, a film that austerely unearths THE PAST for us in unfaded glory, Cold War is a thoroughly paradoxical work: an epic done as a sliver, its narrative ellipses evoke narrative expanse, spreading out diffusely and suggesting vastly more than shown even as they rigorously focus only on the two protagonists. It’s bold and monochrome yet termetic and thoroughly alive, bearing witness to the weight of history (both slipping by, in the moment, and long-past, perhaps forgotten) but still entirely present-tense, jazzily reacting to the shifting pulses and wayward rhythms of its given moment.
Much of Cold War dramatizes this tempestuous, overlapping relationship between stability and movement, between foundational and fixed essences (of people, of nations, of time itself) on one hand and fluid, mutable, non-formed identities on the other. It sits still for minutes on end and then stutters forward, skipping years at a time. It’s tender but steely, revealing all but seemingly always protecting us from something. And, quite like the central relationship, it is freighted with heavy political import, but its diaphanous fabric always feels like it might evaporate before our eyes. If it feels predestined – fatalistic even, as though nothing could ever truly settle the score of some divine cosmic tragedy playing out between these two – it also feels as though it could jerk us around to another moment, another year, another location at any moment, and is beholden to no sense of closure even at the level of the scene. The music – temporal and stylistic variations on a handful of standard Polish folksongs – formalizes this push-and-pull between repetition and change, essence and variability. And the film’s climax, fittingly, occurs in the destroyed husk of a church – the desecration of history looming over the protagonists’ inauspicious futures, the past present even in its absence and loss.
The films ends with a gust of wind – a marker of the intangible, the ephemeral, perhaps pushing us into new realms and destabilizing old earth – where two people once were. In this sense, the film’s liveliness is thoroughly fragile, living in moments that can’t last and within histories that live-on as haunted traces of their former presences. Formally embodying the narrative tensions between omnipresent History and contingent history, Cold War’s circular narrative envisions Europe as an ouroboros devouring itself, born out of and returning to the gaps and questions it can’t quite explain to itself.