Cold War: Historical and Political Context

Cold War world premiered in competition at the 2018 Cannes Film Fest, where it won the Best Director Award.

Era: 1949-1964–Gaps in the Story

Cold War takes place over 15 years, and although it is sequential, there are ellipses. Years at a time are left out, and the audience, guided by intermittent blackouts and titles noting the time and place, must fill in the blanks.

Pawel Pawlikowski chose to do it this way, ‘so as not to have to tell the story in bad scenes with bad dialogue. Very often films, especially biopics, are weighed down by the need to feed information and explain; and the narrative is often reduced to causes and effects. But in life there are so many hidden causes and unpredictable effects – so much ambiguity and mystery that it’s hard to convey it as conventional cause and effect drama. It’s better to just show the strong and significant moments in the story and let the audience fill in the gaps with their own imagination and experience of life. I like to distil stories into strong beats, put them side by side and let the audience experience and make sense of the story, without feeling manipulated.’

The overall effect is that the star-crossed aspect of the lovers – everything that is miscommunicated or left silent – is reflected in the structure of the film itself, leaving the audience to piece things together as much as the characters in it must.

East Versus West

Poland, 1949: When the film opens, Poland is still struggling to get out of the war. There’s no electricity in the countryside. Warsaw is in ruins. Wiktor and Irena, like a pair of musical ethnographers, travel the countryside in search of what remains of its original folkore. The resulting project, the ensemble Mazurek, is a success and before long it gets co-opted by the apparatchiks.

East Berlin, 1952: Mazurek, now singing an ode to Stalin – as requested by the Polish Ministry of Culture – is invited to perform at the International Festival of Youth in East Berlin. ‘Berlin today, Moscow tomorrow,’ muses Kaczmarek, the troupe’s apparatchik manager. Wiktor hears it differently. This is the moment he was waiting for, his one and only chance to escape. East and West Berlin were not yet divided by the Wall. It was still, officially, an open city, but if you were from the East and got picked up by the Russians, you would be imprisoned. When Wiktor crosses into West Berlin, he knows the risk he is taking. He also knows he can never go back and his life will change forever. Zula knows this too… She doesn’t show up. Wiktor crosses into the West on his own.

Paris, 1954:

Wiktor is playing piano in a jazz club. Zula turns up at the bar where he is waiting for her. There is no direct explanation for her presence in Paris, but their awkward, halting dialogue implies that Mazurek has travelled here in order to perform, for the first time outside the Eastern Bloc. They are, needless to say, under close surveillance by the Polish State Security minders, which is why Zula, who has slipped away unnoticed, can only stay for 5 minutes before her absence is noticed. (This episode was, incidentally, inspired by a real event: during Mazowsze’s first Western outing, to Paris in 1954, one of its members managed to give the minders a slip and defect.) Two years after their separation, the former lovers speak awkwardly, barely addressing the reason she never joined him in Berlin. Then she leaves.

Split, Yugoslavia, 1955:

The troupe is performing in the socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. The country is technically non-aligned, independent of the Soviet Bloc, so it’s relatively safe for Wiktor – now a resident in France travelling on a Nansen passport of stateless person – to come there to see Zula. She is stunned to see him in the audience during the performance. Before they can meet, though, he gets picked up during the interval and taken away by Yugoslav state security men, who’ve been tipped off by Kaczmarek, who’d asked for his arrest and extradition to Poland. Thankfully, the local secret police don’t want any diplomatic trouble. They want the stateless Pole out of the way, so they put him on the first train out of Yugoslavia.
Paris, 1957: Zula comes to find Wiktor in Paris. By now, she has married an Italian, and (after 1956) if you managed to marry a Westerner, unless you had state secrets to divulge, you could leave Poland legally. She has not escaped.

Poland, 1959:

After the breakdown of their relationship in Paris – where everything was set fair for their happiness – Zula returns home legally to resume her show business career there. When Wiktor follows her back to Poland, he knows what’s going to happen. In this respect, understanding the political risks is key to the romantic drama: if he knows he is going to get arrested and possibly sentenced to hard labour, why does he go back to find her? Because that is exactly how much he needs to be with her.

Poland, 1964:

Zula, now washed up and drunk, and the mother of a small boy, has married Kaczmarek in an unspoken deal to get Wiktor out of prison. Kaczmarek is now a big shot in the Ministry of Culture and has helped his wife with a career as a cheesy socialist pop star. Wiktor, meanwhile, has ended up in a penal colony, working in a quarry. He’s has had his right hand mutilated and can no longer play the piano.
They agree to get each other out of their respective situations, and return to the ruined orthodox church where the whole story started.

Home and Exile

One of the striking aspects of Cold War – which has also been said of Ida – is that it feels like a film made at the time in which it’s set. In other words, it’s not a nostalgic look at a different time or place from our own perspective. This raises the question of home and exile, not only for the characters within it, but for Pawlikowski himself, who has now made two Polish films in a row, having lived and worked in the West for decades.

The film he made before Ida was Woman in the Fifth, which was set in Paris and starred Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott-Thomas. Joanna Kulig, who plays Zula in Cold War, played a waitress in it. ‘It was a strange monster,’ Pawlikowski reflects now. ‘It had no cultural identity: a French film, American, British, French actors, a Polish director. Although it came from a book, I ignored the book’s plot and put a lot of my confused self into it. So it became something of a compass-less journey into the unknown. I have a lot of affection for that film, it reflects where I was at the time, but I have to admit it was a confusing hybrid, neither realist, nor a thriller or a horror film. It left audiences baffled.

‘That experience made me crave some firm ground. Which I found with Ida and now with Cold War, both of which I built up exactly the way I wanted; from my own stories, set in my own country, about things I knew about.

He moved back to Warsaw to make Ida, and although he still didn’t know if the move would be permanent, he ‘totally reconnected with Poland’. When preparing the film, he was staying in a friend’s apartment near where he grew up, and found it incredibly comforting.

He thought: ‘I’m in the right place. I’m making the right film.’ Some of the shots in Ida were inspired by his own family albums.

Broadly, he began circling autobiographical thoughts – which he had done in different ways with his earlier films, Last Resort and My Summer of Love. But in this case, he found he wasn’t finished with Poland. ‘I can’t be precise,’ he says, ‘but it might have something to do with people reaching a certain age and looking back more and more. But also, feeling a certain calm. I don’t need to prove anything.’

Love’s Love

At one point, Wiktor says to Zula: ‘Love’s love and that’s that.’ Cold War runs on a romantic engine so strong that it brooks no alternative. But not everyone will believe in a love as consistent as that.

What did Pawlikowski want to show by it?

‘Well, this type of relationship that is a bit of a war all the time. Two strong, restless individuals, very unlike each other, two extreme poles. Zula and Wiktor have other lovers, relationships, husbands and wives, but they realise with time that nobody will ever be as close to them as each other, because – for all the historical and geographical comings and goings – nobody knows who they are as well as each other. At the same time, paradoxically, they are the one person they can’t be with.’

The question of how much it’s dictated by politics and circumstance, how much by basic incompatibility, is one he wants to leave open. ‘That’s why it’s slippery,’ he says. ‘In the end, the big question is: “Is there a possibility of love that lasts? Can it transcend life, history, this world? I think the ending gives their love a transcendence of sorts.”

Is the ending inevitable?

‘I have no idea,’ Pawlikowski says. ‘I think so.’