It’s tempting to think that the genesis for the bleak Polish film Cold War came when director Pawel Pawlikowski picked up a copy of Theodor Adorno’s The Culture Industry, read Chapter 1, “On The Fetish Character of Music and the Regression of Listening,” struck his forehead with his fist and said, “I’m going to make a film of this!” But there’s more to the film than just its trenchant commentary on the ruinous uses of folk music and cultural heritage by the Soviets. The movie also has much to say about the problems with authenticity, cultural heritage, and what Louis Althusser called “our imagined relationship to the real conditions of our existence.”
The title alone is a hint of things to come. Not only is the film set in a very cold climate—snow-covered Poland—but the term serves as a metaphor for several other themes in the story. Cold War begins in 1948, when Wiktor, a pianist and composer, is touring rural Poland to record folk songs for an unspecified purpose for the state. “This is the kind of music that any drunk in my village sings,” moans his driver, but Wiktor and his companion, Irina, are clearly enamored of their ethnographic work, which calls to mind that of Alan Lomax, who traveled America collecting and recording traditional folk and blues music in the late 1930s and early 1940s, in part to preserve and archive it in the Library of Congress. Soon, however, they are asked to assemble a group of Polish musicians and dancers in order to go one step further: their role is to put together a troupe of performers, for some kind of state project. It is here Wiktor meets Zula, a young woman whom Irina calls “a bit of a con artist.” In a story that is as old as the hills in popular music (and in the rest of society) he falls for her, in part because she is the prettiest girl in the room, but also, perhaps, because she is slightly edgy: she’s on probation for (possibly) killing her father, whom, she tells Wiktor bitterly, “mistook me for my mother.”
Zula’s psychic damage and the subtle appeal it has for men like Wiktor is a surprisingly contemporary aspect of this film: a sexually traumatized woman hooking up with a more powerful—or at least more socially mobile—man who is attracted to that trauma. The rest of the story is both old and new. Wiktor defects, followed by Zula; eventually he makes a record with her in Paris, but their relationship falls apart in direct proportion to how far their music veers from its original roots. Actually, its “original roots” have been compromised from the start: the song that Zula sings in order to get chosen for the folk group is one she says she heard in a cheesy Russian film about love (according to Vulture, it is from a 1934 film called, “Jolly Fellows”). Ultimately, she wins her place in the troupe by singing a folk song called ‘Two Hearts.” By the end of the movie, the song will have gone through four iterations, from Slavic folk song-turned-national anthem to French chanson, much in the style of Claudine Longet.
It wouldn’t be a movie if the song’s plot—“two hearts, four eyes, one love”—didn’t play out between Wiktor and Zula, and that aspect of the film is possibly its weakest part: some viewers find the mawkish ending too melodramatic, a blunt allegory for the death of authenticity. But Pawlikowski’s attention to detail is meticulous, and overall his aim is true: The troupe that Zula and Wiktor belong to, called Mazurek in the film, is based on a real one, Mazowsze. In the film, as in life, it was co-opted by the Soviet government as a propaganda organization meant to spread and counter the “decadent” art forms of capitalist society, i.e. jazz and pop. According to Pawlikowski, Mazowsze was a force to be reckoned with in his youth and still exists today. “When I was a kid,” he has said, “the state radio and TV was full of its music, the official music of the people. It was seen as uncool and absurd among my friends, who’d much rather listen to bootlegged recordings of the Small Faces or the Kinks. But when I saw Mazowsze live five years ago, I was engrossed. The melodies, the voices, the dances, the arrangements were so beautiful and vital. And so far removed from our virtual world and electronic culture. They swept me away.”
This tension—hovering between a critique of the original group’s work and its celebration of folk as a way back to authenticity—could also be said to describe the essential problem with Zula and Wiktor’s relationship. What is authenticity, and what is it for? And when it comes to our love of music, is it even important? Adorno would say yes’ but I’m not so sure that Pawlikowski agrees: one argument the film makes is that erotic love can be kindled completely outside the bounds of taste, and the same could be said about music. One of the pleasures of Cold War is watching the Mazurek project fade into irrelevance with the coming of rock, in a scene signified by Zula dancing wildly to the song “Rock Around the Clock,” while Wiktor looks on, disapproving—the men don’t know, etc. etc. Wiktor’s taste seems frozen in the time before the war. His heart is with Chopin—at one point, he plays Fantaisie Impromptu—while hers is with the original song from “Jolly Fellows.” It’s as if the director is setting out a dialectic. Classical music here represents the sinister past, popular music represents a joyous future, and folk music represents a nefarious synthesis of both, neither one nor the other, and all too easily appropriated by the state to counter the influence of the other two.
Cold War is being marketed as a romance, and despite a bleaker outlook bears a significant resemblance to the infinitely sunnier Oscar-winning picture Green Book. Both are set in about the same era, both show us individuals navigating different belief systems, and both feature significant amounts of snow. Most importantly, however, both are about musicians traversing regions of the world that no longer exist—the Jim Crow South and the area once loosely known as “behind the Iron Curtain,” i.e. geographic imaginaries recreated especially to set tales about how music can be both redemptive and tragic. In one of the final scenes of Green Book, pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) stuns a honky-tonk full of black patrons with his rendition of Chopin’s Etude Op. 25 in A Minor, before breaking into a furious boogie with the house band. Cold War has an analogous scene in which Wiktor, performing in a Parisian boite, breaks away from a nightclub boogie and into a classical music improvisation, silencing the black musicians who put their horns down and eye him with tolerance and a hint of bored derision.
Green Book has drawn criticism for the way the final scene situates classical music as well outside the expectations or bounds of black audiences and musicians. In contrast, Wiktor’s flight into improvisation is meant to seem inappropriate, sad even, both to his fellow musicians and to us. Significantly, the piece he plays is an homage to a homeland that has been destroyed by Communism, a Chopin-like mash-up of “Two Hearts” and “The Internationale.” It, like the film, is a poignant indication of the limits of popular music to change, to heal, and, ultimately shape people’s life experiences.