Cold War: Pawlikowski’s Tale of Love and Politics among the Ruins

Cold War is a passionate love story between a man and a woman who meet in the ruins of post-war Poland. The film is dedicated to director Pawel Pawlikowski’s parents, whose names the protagonists share.

Shot in black and white, and laced with film noir sensibility, Cold War centers on lovers who are fatally mismatched and yet fatefully condemned to each other, despite (or perhaps because of) different backgrounds and temperaments,

Set against the background of the Cold War in the 1950s in Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia and Paris, the couple are separated by politics, character flaws and unfortunate twists of fate – an impossible love story in impossible times.

Pawlikowski’s most recent film, Ida, was a global success, winning the Oscar and BAFTA for best foreign language film as well as five European Film Awards including best European film, director and screenplay. His other key credits include My Summer of Love and Last Resort.

The real Wiktor and Zula died in 1989, just before the Berlin Wall came down. They had spent the previous 40 years together, on and off, breaking up, chasing and punishing each other on both sides of the Iron Curtain. ‘They were both strong, wonderful people, but as a couple a neverending disaster,’ Pawlikowski reflects.

Although the fictional couple is quite unlike the real one, Pawlikowski has been essaying to tell his parents’ story for almost a decade. How to render all the toing and froing? What to do about the extended period of time? ‘Their life had no obvious dramatic shape,’ he says, and ‘although my parents and I remained very close – I was their only child – the more I thought about them once they were gone, the less I understood them’. Despite the difficulty, he continued to try and fathom the mystery of that relationship. ‘I’ve lived for a long time and seen a lot, but my parents’ story put all the other ones in the shadow. They were the most interesting dramatic characters I’ve ever come across.’

Eventually, he had to make it not about his parents. The shared traits became very general: ‘temperamental incompatibility, not being able to be together, and yearning when you’re apart’; ‘the difficulty of life in exile, of staying yourself in a different culture’; ‘the difficulty of life under a totalitarian regime, of behaving decently despite the temptations not to’. The result is a strong, stirring story broadly inspired, as Pawlikowski puts it, by his parents’ ‘complicated and disrupted love’.

For the fictional Wiktor and Zula, Pawlikowski imagined distinct backstories.
Unlike his own mother – who did run away to the ballet when she was 17 but was from a traditional upper middle class background – Zula comes from the wrong side of the tracks in a drab provincial town. She pretends to be from the country in order to get into a folk ensemble, which she sees as a way out of poverty. In the film, she’s rumoured to have done time for murdering her abusive father. ‘He mistook me for my mother so I used a knife to show him the difference,’ she tells Wiktor. She can sing and dance, she has chutzpah and charm and a chip on her shoulder, and by the time she’s a star in the ensemble she understands that she’s gone as far as she can. ‘For Zula, Communism is just fine,’ Pawlikowski says. ‘She has no interest in escaping to the West’.

The fictional Wiktor is from a much more refined and educated world–a gifted musician. ‘He is calm and stable, comes from the urban intelligentsia and is grounded in high culture, and he needs her energy,’ Pawlikowski says. Privately, he imagined that Wiktor had been sent to study music in Paris before the war, under Nadia Boulanger.  During the German Occupation, he made a living playing the piano, illegally, in Warsaw cafes – as did, incidentally, the great Polish composers Lutosławski and Panufnik. Though a very skilled pianist, with classical training, Wiktor didn’t have what it took to become a great composer. And anyway his real passion was jazz.

The clues about his past are in the music. In the scene in the film in which Wiktor plays a melody on the piano for Zula to sing back to him, the tune is ‘I Loves You Porgy’, from George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. For those who recognise it, the signal is clear: Wiktor has been in the West. ‘After the war, with the emergence of the Stalinist regime in Poland, he doesn’t know what to do with himself,’ Pawlikowski elaborates. Jazz was banned by the Stalinists, as was ‘formalist’ modern classical music. In Pawlikowski’s mind, Wiktor was never very interested in Polish folk music, but when he meets Irena with her folk ensemble project, he realises this could be a useful a gig for a man at a loose end. His desire to escape grows when the folk ensemble starts to be used by the regime for political purposes, and when he discovers that he’s being spied on by State Security. The last straw is when Irena, with whom he has also had a fling, gets the sack for not toeing the line. He knows he will never find musical or any kind of freedom in People’s Poland, that he will always be regarded as suspect and that the compromises required in order to survive will eventually undo him. Escape to the West is the only solution.


Whether Communism expanded or limited the life options for Pawlikowski’s protagonists, its pressures were always present in the background. When Zula admits that she’s been snitching on Wiktor, her betrayal is, from her subjective point of view, a strategic act of survival.

Pawlikowski expects that in Poland, which now is obsessively re-living and re-interpreting its past, he’ll be attacked for not sufficiently spelling out the horrors of Communism, of not ‘showing more terror and suffering at the hands of the communist regime’. But the sense of threat in the film is all the more palpable for being largely unspoken, and its purpose is always to show the intimate impact of politics on character… Does Wiktor, for instance, become less manly in exile? It’s certainly something Pawlikowski thought of his own father, a doctor – he was a brave, outspoken man at home, yet in the West he seemed to be afraid when facing a bank manager.

When the Culture Minister asks the troupe to add songs about Agricultural Reform and World Peace to their repertoire, Irena objects, but the ambitious Kaczmarek overrides her, and before long the ensemble is singing odes to Stalin. But the effect of this brief, manipulative exchange is to show Wiktor under pressure – he says nothing, and this marks the beginning of his career in slipperiness and self-erasure.

Pawlikowski remembers an atmosphere of tension from his childhood in Warsaw: “‘At home everyone spoke their minds, but you had to be careful about what you said at school.”  His parents briefly had a maid from the country, who slept on a fold-up bed in the kitchen of their one-bedroom flat. ‘She had an affair with a state security guy,’ he remembers, ‘and snitched on us’. What was there to snitch about? ‘Parcels from the West, listening to the BBC or Radio Free Europe… My father had a copy of Der Spiegel, banned as all other Western publications, which one day disappeared from the flat’. On one occasion, the whole family went through the dustbins in the middle of the night, in an attempt to retrieve an incriminating letter that Pawlikowski’s father had accidentally thrown away. In 1968 student demonstrations broke out in Warsaw. (Pawlikowski would have been 10.) ‘The centre was full of tear gas,’ he recalls. ‘And in our flat there was a bleeding student of my mother’s (she was then a lecturer at Warsaw University) waiting for the situation to calm down.’

Poland: Past and Present

To Polish viewers, the similarities between the government shown in the film and the government currently in power is particularly relevant.  What with the anti-Western (and anti-American), nationalistic rhetoric; the primitive propaganda in the state media; the climate of fear, crisis and resentment engineered to shore up the support of healthy simple folk against decadent and treacherous elites – for people who lived through Communism all this feels eerily familiar.

The character of Kaczmarek, the resentful provincial careerist spouting useful phrases to get ahead, also rings a bell for Polish audiences. But Cold War is not a political movie per se; history is just the context that helps dramatize a more universal love story.