Art finds a home in “Cold War”

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In his new film, “Cold War,” director Pawel Pawlikowski takes a major step forward from the emotionally blank film “Ida.” The latter portrays Ida, a young Polish nun, who discovers her secret Jewish heritage amid post-war malaise. Her identity crisis works through robotic and dispassionate wandering; cinematographer Łukasz Żal’s black-and-white surface gives an impression of craftsmanship and sweetens the eye to ignore Ida’s inability to turn calculated thought into meaningful assertion. This makes religious faith and its role in self-discovery an effect instead of a principle. Even as her biological identity comes into focus, we never see its meaning powerfully inscribed through declarative actions. Despite these shortcomings, Pawlikowski gained international acclaim when the film received the 2015 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. This art-house effort was compared to the late Ingmar Bergman, but it fails to continue Bergman’s thread of apotheosizing the human face. In “Persona” and “Winter Light the characters sharpen their facial expressions into windows that inspire empathetic and ultimately powerful visual experiences. Ida’s face is frozen and displays an impermeable temper.

Cold War” shares “Ida’s” black-and-white gloss, but it argues that Pawlikowski is interested in communication beyond austerity. The film follows the romance of artists Zula and Wiktor in the service of insightful commentary on the spiritual ingredients of art in politicized and secular spaces. It begins in the late 1940s during Poland’s post-World War II transformation and spans until the mid-1960s. Pawlikowski’s focus on Polish history grounds his films in specified cultural periods, but he doesn’t show the ruthless consequences of political turmoil. The horrors of the Nazi occupation are alluded to but never directly confronted. This makes both “Cold War” and “Ida” politically naive in that they do not give the established government a well-defined ethical or intensified purpose. However, “Cold War” scratches a contemporary cultural itch in the repurposing of art and stylistic meaning.

The film begins when Wiktor, an instructor and talent scout, is searching for members in the Mazurek ensemble of youth folk singers. When he and his colleague Irena are auditioning rural teenagers, the original Zula comes along and breathes style into an artistic production so myopic, it is commissioned by communists. The students converse in a crowded hallway while a girl informs Zula that the mini-performance should be done in “peasant style.” Their ethnic backgrounds and traditional upbringings are romanticized to create national solidarity around a sense of common struggle. As talented singers, their nationally-recognized value comes in the form of their political potential.

In an unconvincing announcement, Lech, a careerist bureaucrat overlooking the project, informs the group that they are to sing music that is “born in the fields” and songs of “pain and humiliation.” Contrast this mission with Zula’s soaring vocals as she belts “it’s so great to be alive” during her audition tryout. She tells the instructors that she learned the song from a Hollywood movie and reveals her reverence for the cultural innovations of the West. Through a contemporary lens, an American artist is faced with a similar audition to a much larger audience. In the ongoing wake of the 2016 presidential election, our popular culture currently rewards obvious and spiritually empty politicization to remedy its discontent. Performative and pseudo-oppositional attitudes are commodified while deconstructing social mechanisms supersedes authentic notions of humanistic insight. This is the question an American musician must work through: Should they align their work with the well-rehearsed narrative of historical struggle or embrace hope and possibility in a developing future?

This ethnic allegory is enhanced when Lech voices concerns over Zula’s appearance. He tells Wiktor that Zula is “too dark” to fit the native look the production promotes. She is deemed not quite Polish enough and this foible in her appearance gives visuals to her individualized circumstance. Lech’s assessment gives us less insight about Poland’s ethnic majority and turns the focus toward Zula’s physical and temporal differences. Her eyes are the physical tools that translate her perceptive instincts, and their brown coloring visibly separates her from the other singers. Early in their relationship, Zula derides Wiktor as a bourgeois yes-man to get under his skin. Her antagonism for any instance of compromised careerism evokes both rebellion and immaturity. However, these two lively qualities speak to a passionate emotional pull that puts Ida’s stoic stare to shame. In Wiktor and Zula, Pawlikowski crafts two characters that give the film a sleek coating to cover its political blind spots. Their mismatched temperaments expose the personal compromises each are willing to make. Zula defies the national desire for conformity while Wiktor sacrifices his citizenship for a chance at intellectual freedom.

Through appeals to social mood and cultural influence, Lech persuades the government to convert the ensemble to agit-prop singers. They declare that the purpose of the traveling group should be to deify Joseph Stalin and his political promises. Irena attempts to reason with the officials but they wave her objections away. The government only sees the singers’ technical abilities and not the experiences that inform and personalize their talent. The group is trained to emotionally connect with the common man and his concerns do not reach high-class fixations on land reform. Irena understands that the folk tradition is what gives Mazurek its spirit and by forcing this script of political class material onto farming class singers, the production will lose its genuine feeling. Under authoritarian rule, conformity stifles artistic agency. Music is imposed through a strict index of content rather than imaginative aesthetics, and songs become speeches. The meaning of a work is reduced to a fixed definition that leaves little room for interpretive or learned understanding. When a contemporary internet movement like cancel culture separates artists into polarizing categories of morally-good versus morally-bad, they proudly embrace this shortsighted formula. In our desire to understand art, we can bring our political affiliations to the table, but when investigating the stylistic order of a work, we must be willing to make aesthetic distinctions.

When Wiktor and Zula desert their positions in the ensemble and flee to Paris, their new setting is filled with unfulfilling Western decadence. This secular freedom is evidenced by an ecstatic club dance to Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock.” Even in a modern context, their individual passions are yet to be achieved. They attempt to commercialize their talents and repurpose a traditional folk song for a smoky jazz ballad, but the feeling does not translate. She is a direct communicator who sees through dishonest gentility, thus making her transition in kitschy society less than seamless. The film’s ambiguous ending makes an allusion to faith and an unseen future, but its closing moments still carry more emotional weight then Ida’s final stroll. “Cold War” unites its lovers through their incompatibility with conformist Polish culture and the spiritual emptiness of Paris.