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Marketable Polish Melancholy: Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War

Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig in Cold War

By Alex Ramon.

Without a doubt, the biggest Polish cinematic success of the past decade has been Paweł Pawlikowski’s 2013 film Ida. Feted first at Toronto, the film went on to win acclaim and awards at numerous high-profile international events, culminating in the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film (Poland’s first) in 2015. Not only that, but the critical praise translated into box office success: somewhat surprisingly, for a quiet black-and-white film, that, in a modest 80 minutes, tells of a young novitiate in 1960s Poland who, learning of her unsuspected Jewish roots, takes a road trip with her Aunt Wanda, a former Stalinist prosecutor, to find out more about her family’s fate.

While tackling such subject matter has become more common in Polish cinema – generally in lurid genre thrillers such as Władysław Pasikowski’s Pokłosie (Aftermath) (2012) and Borys Lankosz’s Ziarno Prawdy (A Grain of Truth) (2015) – Ida‘s serious, low-key approach made it a novelty, as well as a confidence-boosting success for the estimable Polish Film Institute, without whose support the film wouldn’t have been made.

In Poland itself the response to Ida became increasingly vexed, the film turning into a political football, as Pawlikowski outlines, with characteristic perspicacity, in a recent interview here. In addition to that, amidst the rapturous international response to the film, one dissenting review stood out. It came (as it often does) from The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, who in a piece entitled “The Distasteful Vagueness of Ida,” took Pawlikowski’s film to task on artistic, historical, and even ethical grounds. The film, Brody contends, is “a pernicious fraud,” one that “doesn’t tell a story of individuals but, rather, of ciphers, whom Pawlikowski moves upon a chessboard of history.” Brody argues that Ida is “a history lesson in editorial form, a thumbnail sketch of a textbook illustration of Poland’s litany of horrors, affixed to characters but set forth without the benefit of any first-person experience.”

Cold 03While some of Brody’s complaints are (as they often are) plain nutty  – “The images and sounds don’t show that they dug, they show how they might dig,” as he witters of the scene in which Ida and Wanda reinter the bones of their murdered relatives – I find myself in sympathy with his assertion that Ida does not go as deeply as it might into its characters or its themes. While Brody’s response initially seemed an outlier, other dissenters have emerged, too. Anecdotally, several people have told me that they disliked the film, a displeasure that often seems to have something to do with the conclusion, in which the heroine, offered a “normal” secular life by David Ogrodnik’s sexy saxophonist, unceremoniously rejects it and heads back to the convent.

That surprising ending exemplifies the slightly subversive streak that is one of Ida’s most admirable aspects. The film’s restraint is so unfashionable that it gives the picture a radical quality, while its centralising of female characters makes it a valuable counter to traditional “Maps and Chaps” approaches to dramatising 20th century history. Still, Ida‘s studied art-film ambience – with its carefully composed, static shots inviting quick comparison to Bresson, Dreyer, or Polish Film School alums – can seem something of a pose, creating an atmosphere that’s eerily out-of-time on the one hand yet rather ersatz on the other.

The slight sense of superficiality that’s evident in Ida is multiplied in Pawlikowski’s new film Cold War, which premiered at Cannes in May. Again the film has received widespread acclaim (winning Pawlikowski the Best Director prize at Cannes), and even those who disliked Ida have declared themselves “won over” by it.

That may not be so surprising: in place of a female-centred story, Cold War offers the crowd-pleasing comforts of ill-fated heterosexual romance. Based loosely on the experiences of the director’s parents, to whom the film is dedicated, Cold War follows the relationship between two characters, the musicologist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and the singer Zula (Joanna Kulig), who first meet in 1949 when the former is scouting for performers for the Mazurek folk ensemble. Zula and Wiktor’s affair takes place over both sides of the Iron Curtain: in East Berlin, where Wiktor attempts to convince Zula to flee across the border with him, in Paris and Yugoslavia, and back in Poland again, with the strong implication that the lovers are as divided by their personalities as they are by politics.

The film, which Pawlikowski wrote with the acclaimed, now late, writer Janusz Głowacki, tells this story linearly but with significant time jumps, inviting the viewer to fill in the gaps. As such, it takes even further Ida‘s tendency to edit around major events, while also duplicating the earlier film’s formal qualities. Shot by Ida‘s cinematographer, the talented Łukasz Żal, Cold War is in black-and-white, and in the same boxy Academy ratio. While some critics have noticed subtle differences in the visual style – Tony Rayns, writing in Sight and Sound, praises the new film’s “elegant circular tracking shots [and] chiaroscuro interiors” – there’s no denying that Cold War presents itself, like Ida, as a self-conscious arthouse throwback. “I’m certainly not nostalgic for Stalinism but I am nostalgic for clarity against our current culture of noise and distraction,” Pawlikowski has said. “Feelings went deeper then; they had to.”

Do feelings go deep in Cold War, though? The answer, I’m afraid, is no. Where Ida‘s narrative economy and minimalism proved intriguing, at its best suggesting a wider context for its distilled, modest story, Cold War‘s elliptical structure is much less satisfying. The opening scenes, documenting the coming together of the troupe and the auditions of the singers, have a raw, almost anthropological quality that promises much. But the film finally seems fatally compressed at under 90 minutes, too episodic for its own good, and in need of greater texture and expansiveness.

Since a vivid sense of what draws Wiktor and Zula together is denied us in those early scenes, it’s very hard to feel invested in the central relationship and the compromises, betrayals, break-ups and make-ups that ensue. The film’s beauty also feels a limitation in this regard. As exquisite image follows exquisite image, the viewer, initially seduced, may gradually get the uneasy sense that something – something essential – is missing. For a work based in fraught real-life experience – “the mother of all love stories,” as Pawlikowski has termed his parents’ romance – Cold War feels cool, distanced and the opposite of heartfelt. The use of music is intelligent and adroit throughout but doesn’t have the emotional resonance that, say, Jia Zhangke wrests from the songs employed in his great Mountains May Depart (2015) – another film about the experience of exile that uses a time-leaping structure and music as an important connective.

Cold 02As a director, Pawlikowski seems strongly drawn to opposites in characterisation – the contrasting lovers in My Summer of Love (2004), the innocent Ida and the worldly Wanda – and he resorts to that kind of shorthand again here. Yet the film’s structure inhibits the performers. Kot, a hugely popular Polish star who won great acclaim for 2014’s Gods and previously co-starred with Kulig in 2015’s Disco Polo (think Cold War‘s gaudy, cheeky cousin), has little to do but moon around and mope, and he’s not particularly compelling. Agata Kulesza (the Wanda of Ida) and Borys Szyc are also under-utilised in weak roles.

As such, the charismatic Joanna Kulig provides the film with its only vitality. Kulig, who had a dialogue-free role as the singer in Ida, has always been a highly physical performer (some may recall her great dance scene to The Knife’s “Pass this On” with Juliette Binoche in Małgorzata Szumowska’s Elles). Here her barroom blitz to “Rock Around the Clock” is one of Cold War‘s highlights, while Zula’s later dash past her child and husband into her lover’s arms achieves a rare moment of emotional weight. What’s frustrating is that Kulig seems game to go much deeper into the character than Pawlikowski’s approach allows. The performance is very good – the main reason for seeing the film – yet it can truly catch fire only momentarily. As Brody argues of Ida and Wanda, but more damagingly here, Zula and Wiktor are “ciphers,” moved upon ” a chessboard of history.”

Cold War will continue to do well: its thinness and veneer of austere chic make it an easily digestible “sophisticated” offering – an arthouse La La Land, if you will. Something else may make it appealing too: the film’s adherence to a stereotypical vision of Poland. Tonally and aesthetically, Ida and Cold War construct Poland in a way that jibes with international perceptions, presenting the country in terms of pastness, bleakness, troubled political history, jazz and melancholy: literally, a place preserved in monochrome. That may be less worrying if the films delved deeper but Cold War in particular works not to challenge such perceptions but to endorse them. Come the under-motivated conclusion, the film looks like a calculated attempt to reproduce the brand of retro Polish melancholy that proved unexpectedly marketable with Ida.

From the ironic documentaries with which he began his career to these two recent arthouse hits, Pawlikowski has proved himself a canny, versatile filmmaker. His return to the country of his birth is undoubtedly to be welcomed, raising the profile of a nation whose recent cinematic output has often been undervalued internationally. Still, it might be hoped that he challenges himself and his audience further next time, with a project that doesn’t again pin Poland in a sketchy version of its past.

Cold War is out in the UK on 31 August, and premieres at the NYFF on 7 October.

Alex Ramon is a lecturer and critic currently based in Łódź, Poland. He is the author of the book Liminal Spaces: The Double Art of Carol Shields and has written and presented papers on Guy Maddin, Sarah Polley, Rawi Hage, Mordecai Richler, and Iris Murdoch. He has interviewed various directors, writers and actors including Agnieszka Holland, Andrzej Chyra, and Samuel Adamson. His current projects include a study of novel-to-film adaptations. He writes for PopMatters and British Theatre Guide and blogs at Boycotting Trends.

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