Suddenly jazz became a major taboo in Soviet society until Stalin’s death. In Western Europe, by contrast, mainly in Paris, jazz took off after the Nazis’ defeat in the hues of Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. These postwar musicians reimagined the red-hot extemporaneous rhythms of the bebop movement for the more relaxed, pastel-like style of what’s been called “cool jazz.” They counteracted the wild exuberance of the war years with musical nonchalance. It’s not by chance that in 1957, Davis released his acclaimed album Birth of the Cool. This is the sort of music that Pawlikowski uses in Cold War to introduce us to 1950s Paris. Laid-back, suave, cymbal snare tails – one hears hints of “Take Five.”
A map collector, a filmmaker, an amateur ornithologist – Peter Greenaway, in his short film A Walk through H (1978), leads viewers on a colorful bird-watching tour across make-believe lands by way of maps, ninety-two of them. Nearly every shot of the film is a static image of mapped territory overlaid by routes denoting the flight patterns of various species of birds. Sometimes Greenaway’s maps themselves even look like birds. This experiment in avian cartography challenges viewers to rethink what it means to map; it explodes the possibilities of geographic representation. “Perhaps it was not impossible that other travelers had different maps of this territory,” Greenaway’s narrator muses aloud, “Perhaps the country only existed in its maps.…” Soaring birdlike through time and space, Greenaway opens the door for alternative diagrams, in cinematic form, of history. “The film meditates on cartography as a form of epistemic inquiry and inventory,” media theorist Giuliana Bruno writes, “conjoining filmic travel and mapped itineraries with the traveling of the archive.”1 In Greenaway’s hands, filmmaking becomes a form of mapmaking, less concerned with accuracy than with artistic exploration. It calls to mind more recently Paweł Pawlikowski’s film Cold War (2018), a sultry, jazz-infused tour from behind the Iron Curtain that “remaps” the history of the Cold War, not by birds but in song. It forgoes the linear geography of historical storytelling in favor of a fragmented narrative of mid-century Europe. Cold War musically charts the ruined map of its postwar setting in a way that resembles Europe’s own crumbling cityscapes of that era. It’s a sonic stroll through the rubble of World War II.
The film opens with several grim wintry landscapes of a dilapidated Polish village in 1949. The setting’s provincialism, from the outset, is conveyed musically. Cold War begins with a Polish musician playing a kozioł, a traditional Polish bagpipe inflated by bellows, looking into the camera. His forlorn complexion, complemented by the cacophonous folk tune and Pawlikowski’s grainy black-and-white cinematography, relays the dreariness of postwar Poland. Even one of the talent scouts traveling to this backwater to recruit young singers for a folkloric musical ensemble asks, “Is it not too crude here, too primitive?” Pawlikowski ironically answers this question by cutting to a shot of a peasant woman singing on an accordion in a bar hall. These early images and sounds hint at the revival of folk culture in Eastern Europe after World War II.
The Nazi crack-up of Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1939 – two independent, sovereign states – led to widescale repression of these countries’ indigenous cultures. This sort of nationalistic tyranny then spread across Eastern Europe, climaxing in Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, until the fall of Berlin in 1945. In the wake of Aryan oppression in these eastern lands, peasant culture, especially music and dance, reemerged to assert a specifically Slavic identity. “That music that was born in the field of slavery,” Lech Kaczmarek, a cynical-looking headhunter, exhorts his eager Polish recruits in Cold War, “the music of your grandfathers and great-grandfathers. Music of pain, harm, humiliation.” He and his colleagues are searching for homegrown folk artists, musicians who can articulate Poland’s heritage in song. This recovered sense of identity, though, was not politically neutral. In 1949, communism was in vogue in Poland.
Even before the Nazi demolition of Eastern Europe in the 1940s, Joseph Stalin had laid the groundwork for the “Sovietization” of places like Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, largely by hijacking a kaleidoscope of leftist organizations.2 The Red Army’s counteroffensive against the Nazis, which picked up considerable steam in February 1943 after the Battle of Stalingrad, expedited these plans as Soviet troops, laying waste behind them, began pouring into Eastern European capitals en masse. In a matter of months, Stalin had exported the socialist revolution deep into Europe. The newly “liberated” territories – Bulgaria, Hungary, East Germany, Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia – were now occupied by Red Army troops, who brought with them propagandists and secret police. Overnight, Nazi authority had been replaced by Soviet hegemony across Eastern Europe. The communist seizure of power in these countries, by 1948 – right when Pawlikowski’s Cold War takes off – had been totalized after Stalin annulled the results of several popular elections, installed puppet communist regimes, and erected a “curtain of iron” down Europe’s middle. Fittingly, Stalin’s name itself derives from the word “steel” (stal’) in Russian. This new map of Europe built from the wreckage of war is relayed by song in Cold War.
The folk music heard in the film’s opening sequences deals strictly with secular, tawdry themes: drinking, infidelity, animals, and long goodbyes. It makes light of the simple lives of simple people, downplaying the sorts of things one might expect to find in Polish folk culture, such as Catholic motifs or anti-Russian sentiments – an ambivalence thus laid at the heart of postwar Polish identity. On the one hand, the Soviets encouraged the recovery of native folk culture as a kind of pan-Slavist statement of opposition against Western Europe, while, on the other hand, the Soviets actively discouraged an outbreak of sectarian nationalism in any of their newly occupied territories.3 The folk revivalism of postwar Eastern Europe – the sort on display in Cold War’s opening scenes – could do no more than articulate the humble, working-class origins of Slavic peoples. The communist utopia would organically grow out of peasant culture. Counterintuitively, then, the reclamation of Polish folk culture in the 1940s was a leap into the future, not into the past. The socialist utopia of tomorrow belonged to the underclasses, to the Soviet everymen united by proletarian interests. Hence, when Cold War’s Zuzanna, or “Zula,” a beguiling young songstress, is asked by a talent scout and, later, her would-be lover, Wiktor Warski, to sing on her own, she performs a Russian song from the classic Soviet film Jolly Fellows (Veselye rebiata, 1934), “So Many Pretty Girls,” thus corroborating the reach of Stalinist propaganda in postwar Europe.
Written by Vasilii Lebedev-Kumach, “So Many Pretty Girls” quickly ingrained itself in Soviet mass consciousness – especially after being popularized by Pyotr Leshchenko’s tango-inspired version – as the theme song to Grigorii Aleksandrov’s famous musical comedy. The film Jolly Fellows follows the (mis)adventures of a young jazz musician, Kostia, trying to make it big in 1930s Moscow. A picture of ecstatic cheeriness, Jolly Fellows became a cornerstone of Stalinist propaganda. It simultaneously reflected an untroubled Soviet land of simplicity and comraderie, while it also deflected the terror of the times during Stalin’s repressive campaigns in the mid-1930s. Its theme song’s chorus, sung by Zula to great effect in Cold War, reveals as much:
Heart – there is no way to keep you calm Heart – how wonderful it is to be alive Heart – how great it is that you are as you are Thank you, heart, for being so able to love.
Jolly Fellows gave rise to the Stalinist musical, a genre of cinema designed to project idyllic images of the Soviet future into the otherwise drab Soviet present. It became a vehicle of imaginative escapism. The final scene of Jolly Fellows, indeed, leads the audience by way of a pull-back shot from the riotous merrymaking inside Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater out onto Moscow’s city streets. It collapses the “fourth wall” to integrate Soviet spectators into the film’s spectacle.4 The retracting camera of Jolly Fellows eventually makes it all the way to Poland, where Zula finds it in her rundown village in Cold War and is struck by the film’s signature tune with its promises of a better future. The Stalinist song was made to be so insidiously catchy that listeners exited the theater whistling and humming its politicized lyrics long after the picture cut to black. The soundtrack of Stalinism could infect the Soviet mind. In Cold War, Zula’s rendition of “So Many Pretty Girls” from memory indicates the effectiveness of Stalin’s postwar propaganda.
In her rendition, though, one can detect a hint of the jazzy lilts she’ll adopt later when she’s abroad. “There’s something in her,” Wiktor says, “Energy, tenderness. She’s original.” After Zula’s acceptance into the folk ensemble, Pawlikowski jumps to Warsaw in 1951, where she’s seen backdropped by a chorus of singers in traditional peasant garb belting out a version of the Polish song “Two Hearts” (Dwa serduszka). With their sonorous reprise of “Oi, oi, oi…,” Wiktor’s song-and-dance troupe – loosely based on the Polish folk outfit Mazowsze founded in 1948 – is jolted to Soviet stardom, even invited to sing abroad. But on one condition. Wiktor is told that his group must politicize its repertoire. Without “a strong song about the world leader of the proletariat,” a stodgy bureaucrat informs Wiktor, there’ll be no chance of an international tour.
By 1951, in the final years of Stalin’s reign, his cult of personality (and paranoia) reached megalithic proportions, plunging the Soviet Union into a kind of cultural black hole. Anything short of outright sycophancy could end ominously. Yet Wiktor’s colleague in Cold War, Irena Bielecka, defends the Polish collective, saying that it’s based on “authentic Polish folk art,” not Stalinist histrionics. The toady Kaczmarek, who’ll later be rewarded for his statist loyalties, dismisses her concerns. The group would be delighted to sing to the dear leader, he says.
Pawlikowski then cuts to a shot of a banner of Stalin’s visage being unfurled behind the folk singers, now in military fatigues, bellowing a patriotic anthem. Stalin’s face itself momentarily fills the visual field (Fig. 1). Witnessing such capitulation, Bielecka refuses to join in the applause. Her ensemble has been wholly co-opted by the Stalinist machine. Pawlikowski has her walk out in protest. She won’t be seen again in Cold War. Unwilling to kowtow to Stalin, Bielecka is disposed of cinematically. She’s cut out of the frame, written off; purged. Her disappearance in Cold War is a subtle but dark nod to Stalinism’s culture of executions. For their valorization of Stalin in song, Wiktor’s folk group is invited to tour the Eastern Bloc. Their first stop: Berlin.
After another demoralizing concert of staid chamber music, Wiktor decides to slip out of East Berlin into the West. To his chagrin, he’s not joined by Zula as had been planned. The next sequence, skipping ahead to Paris in 1954, then shows him in a smoke-filled nightclub, L’eclipse, playing piano in a jazz quintet. Unlike the Soviet Union, where a culture of folk revivalism overtook popular music, Western Europe underwent a renaissance in jazz during the postwar era. Initially cropping up in the European avant-garde in the 1920s, jazz was vigorously suppressed by that era’s kaleidoscope of fascist movements, especially the Nazis, as the height of modernist decadence. Its carefree, sensual tempos – relayed most impeccably by black musicians – deeply offended Europe’s conservative gatekeepers. Ironically, having originally been embraced by the Stalinists for its oppositional posture against bourgeois taste and American racism, jazz enjoyed a relative popularity in the Soviet Union in the interwar years, but, after World War II, Stalin and his cultural ideologist, Andrei Zhdanov, aggressively banned jazz for its moral laxity and foreign roots, or, in Communist speak, for its “cosmopolitan formalism.”5 Suddenly jazz became a major taboo in Soviet society until Stalin’s death. In Western Europe, by contrast, mainly in Paris, jazz took off after the Nazis’ defeat in the hues of Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. These postwar musicians reimagined the red-hot extemporaneous rhythms of the bebop movement for the more relaxed, pastel-like style of what’s been called “cool jazz.” They counteracted the wild exuberance of the war years with musical nonchalance. It’s not by chance that in 1957, Davis released his acclaimed album Birth of the Cool. This is the sort of music that Pawlikowski uses in Cold War to introduce us to 1950s Paris. Laid-back, suave, cymbal snare tails – one hears hints of “Take Five.”
This music provides the setting for a brief reunion of the two lovers, Zula and Wiktor. For all jazz’s sensuality, though, their love won’t be reconsummated in Paris. They explain that while they’ve both moved on, they’re still looking for each other. They’re zig-zagging across Europe from either side of the Iron Curtain in pursuit of a love made too complicated by Cold War politics. After a midnight stroll in Paris, Pawlikowski then jumps to Yugoslavia in 1955, where Wiktor spots a poster for an upcoming performance by Zula’s group. Given Yugoslavia’s split from the Soviet bloc in the late 1940s – Stalin and the then Yugoslav leader, Josip Tito, had a famously acrimonious relationship that Khrushchev only mildly rehabilitated after Stalin’s death – the Balkans represented an interesting place where “east” met “west,” where a renegade Polish composer could cross paths with a communist folk superstar. In only several scenes, Pawlikowski transports us from the jazz clubs of Paris back to the folk choir chambers of the USSR.
When Zula then spots Wiktor in the audience, her folk-dance routine is thrown off. She can’t believe that he’s turned up in Zagreb. For his part, though, Wiktor must take his eyes off her after he realizes that he’s being spied on by Polish secret agents. He’s been blacklisted ever since he fled Berlin. Pawlikowski here calls attention to the espionage so indicative of Cold War culture. The Soviets pursued their enemies across borders by way of spies and informants. That Kaczmarek knew that Zula had killed her father during World War II before even arriving to her village bespeaks the communists’ regime of record-keeping. In Cold War, Wiktor is apprehended by the secret police and sent out of Yugoslavia back to Paris. On his way out, one of the officers tells him that Zula – this “femme fatale” – isn’t worth risking expatriation. What better mid-century phrase to describe Zula? It hints at the popularity of film noir in world cinema circa 1950. Several nighttime shots of a Wiktor in a black car even recall the capers of Hitchcock and Siodmak.
Suddenly we’re back in Paris two years later in 1957. Wiktor has found a job recording film scores. In a slick establishing shot, Pawlikowski shows the back of Wiktor’s head fully backdropped by a screen on which an old-timey Italian horror movie is being played. The viewer of Cold War is briefly watching two films at once here. If the nightscape in Zagreb visually quoted 1950s film noir, then Wiktor’s dark string music used for this Italian film cites another of this era’s popular film genres: Italian gothic horror.6 Pioneered by Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1957), Italian gothic cinema – what the Italians called cinema di paura – became an important current in postwar European cinema with its trademark motifs of crumbling castles, werewolves and vampires, misty cemeteries, dark crypts, and windswept cypress trees. “The emerging of the irrational in Italian Gothic horror movies was seen by many as compensation against the chains of Neorealism, which had monopolized Italian cinema for over a decade … the Italian way of the Gothic responded to an urgency that arose not from unbearable deprivation, but from new-found wealth” of the postwar economic boom in Italy, il miracolo economico.7 The gothic became a site of fantastic and sexual lapse for a society fatigued by realism. Fittingly, Wiktor’s music in Cold War overlays a scene of a shadow lurking down a flight of stairs in a rundown villa. It’s a classic imagescape of the unnerving, even if somewhat canned, postwar Italian gothic.
Then, in a burst of surrealism straight out of cinema di paura, Zula appears out of nowhere, interrupts Wiktor’s recording session, and snatches him away (Fig. 2). The two proceed to spend the night together after an afternoon traipsing around Paris. Zula tells him that she’s married an Italian for a visa out of Poland. It’s a marriage of convenience that lets her carry on her affair with Wiktor across Cold War borderlands. A jazz song can be heard outside as they make love. They’re back in Paris, after all. Later that evening, Wiktor and Zula longingly observe a Parisian street while on a ferryboat ride. In the deftest camerawork of Cold War, Pawlikowski leads his viewers laterally across several dark Parisian sights and pauses on a looming cathedral in an intermezzo that recalls the eeriness of Italian gothic cinema. In the hues and tones of film noir, gothic revivalism, and Stalinism, Pawlikowski’s Cold War guides us along a cinematic map of postwar Europe. The film’s uneven jump cuts through time and space replicate the fracturing of a whole continent.
The star-crossed lovers then find themselves drunkenly dancing in a jazz club, listening to Buddy Holly’s bebop “Maybe Baby.” The lyrics have special resonance for the couple.
They’re stuck in a futile affair that, though consummated, will undoubtedly end badly. This scene has all the trappings of Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000), an “almost, not quite” romance foiled by timing and the integrity of its characters, who are driven to foreign lands by a love that they know is too fugitive and unsure, condemned to wonder what could have been. The dancing lovers in Cold War, though, lack the understated elegance of Kar-wai’s characters. Disheveled, sweaty, unfaithful – Wiktor and Zula are in the mood for love (Fig. 3). But their affair is subject to the back-and-forth of Cold War geopolitics. Theirs is a love story ruined by history.
The visual frame then cuts to black before the sounds of cool jazz usher us back into Cold War. We’re still in 1950s Paris, where we find a chic Zula dressed in all black with a pearl necklace onstage under a spotlight singing before a packed house in L’eclipse. The understated visuals here are matched by Zula’s pared-down vocals. She retools the song “Two Hearts,” heard earlier in a booming folk chorus, for the sly, smokier vibes of Parisian jazz. Pawlikowski captures her performance in a 360-degree shot that glides the viewer around the club in sync with Zula’s syrupy voice. The whole tragedy of the Cold War is captured in this fragile sequence. The song’s refrain of “oi, oi, oi” is sung barely above a whisper. Cold War reduces the scale of the whole historical conflict it portrays onto the micro level of its protagonists. This history is retold in a flip-book style via the unrequited wanderings of two musicians in love. We learn that Zula has decided to stay in Paris, where she and Wiktor, in their small, burnt-out apartment, start making jazz records for money. This is where Zula’s talent – far more than in Polish folk music – flourishes. Her musical gifts couldn’t be channeled by the political exigencies behind the Iron Curtain. The spark that Wiktor noticed in her earlier only comes to fruition abroad.
Before long, Zula and Wiktor become thoroughbred performers. They’re invited to swanky Parisian parties, record songs in French, and attract the attention of locals. Several of Ella Fitzgerald’s songs can be heard over their escapades in Paris: “I’ve Got a Crush on You, Sweetie Pie” and “The Man I Love.” Despite all odds, Pawlikowski’s protagonists have ostensibly built a home for themselves abroad. One of Wiktor’s ex-girlfriends, a poet, even explains to Zula the meaning of a metaphor she had used in her verse of time being “killed” by a pendulum. “Time doesn’t matter when you are in love,” she says. Yet Zula’s unfazed expression suggests otherwise. The timing is all wrong for her and Wiktor. Notwithstanding their good fortunes in Paris, the two struggle to make a life for themselves. Constantly smoking and drinking, they are caricatures of Parisian sophisticates, of foreigners pretending to be French. At one point Zula is even mockingly called Édith Piaf. They’re little more than disillusioned émigrés. It’s time that gets in the way of this couple. If nothing else, Cold War suggests just how much couples depend on time; Zula and Wiktor end up on the wrong side of history. So she responds by cutting loose at a night club to Bill Haley’s “Rock around the Clock,” dancing on tables and breaking glass. It’s a go-to-hell send-off to a world that has wronged her (Fig. 4). She heads back to Poland shortly thereafter.
Learning Zula’s fled, Wiktor renounces his French citizenship and tries to follow her, but he’s told that he can’t return because, according to a stodgy diplomat, he stopped “loving” Poland as soon as he abandoned it. The only way Wiktor can reenter is if he renounces his former actions and provides info on his contacts in Paris. He agrees, and Pawlikowski then leaps “back” to Poland in 1959. The viewer finds Zula on a train in a headscarf surrounded by drably dressed passengers. The film picks up right where it left off in the Polish countryside ten years earlier. A caravan of men drive past her outside singing folk songs. Little has changed here; communism did not deliver on its promises. Pawlikowski’s jump cut into the future is actually one into the past. For her part, Zula is walking to a labor camp, where she finds a head-shaven Wiktor, who tells her that he’s received a sentence of fifteen years of hard labor, which, on balance, is a fairly “generous” deal for having betrayed his homeland (Fig. 5). Despite being abolished internationally by the United Nations in 1957, labor camps persisted behind the Iron Curtain as a tool of political reeducation well into the 1960s. Those having wronged the state could learn from their mistakes by working for it. In the camps, Wiktor maims his hands so badly that he loses his ability to play piano. The state gets the last laugh here. For all his misery, though, he’s at peace; he’s back home. Wiktor and Zula then kiss goodbye in an image that proves romance could even flourish in the Gulag.
Cold War then makes its final trip through time. After the labor camp scene, Pawlikowski ushers us back into Poland to the Latin-infused tune “Baoi Bongo,” the Polish singer Nastasza Zylska’s smash hit, being covered by Zula in an outdoor amphitheater in 1964. Backdropped by several horn players wearing their finest black sombreros, Zula herself is in a black wig, evening gloves, and a glittery sequined dress poorly mimicking the rhythms of a salsa dancer. The performance is kitschy – “I needed a really cheesy number that would show how low she sank after returning to Poland,” Pawlikowski said of the scene – but it’s also a musical allusion to the newfound influence of Cuba in the Soviet bloc. The romantic spirit of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 – and Fidel Castro’s implacable opposition to American imperialism – revived the utopian imagination of communists worldwide, especially in Eastern Europe. For the Soviets, Cuba “became a metaphor not only for the October Revolution, but for its modern incarnation, a liberal, laid-back revolution of the 1960s.”8) Cuba injected a burst of color and pizzazz into the Iron Curtain’s otherwise dreary landscapes. The liberalized environment precipitated by Stalin’s death in 1953 fueled a series of reform movements in Hungary, East Berlin, and Czechoslovakia, which culminated with Castro and Che Guevara’s overthrow of the Batista regime in the Caribbean. A wave of quixotic utopianism then retook the socialist world. Yet in Cold War, Pawlikowski belies this otherwise optimistic mood with his portrayal of Zula as a washed-up entertainer drunkenly stumbling in staccato heels with smeared mascara. She and Wiktor have been too traumatized by politics to live under any more delusions. A shot of them crumpled up on a bathroom floor shows to what extent they’ve had the life sucked out of them (Fig. 6). These are characters incapable of hope. Indeed, to secure Wiktor an early release, Zula married his ex-partner, Kaczmarek, a state official with political pull, with whom she now has a six-year-old son. She’s given herself over to the state, literally mothering its child. So she begs Wiktor to take her away, anywhere and forever.
Suddenly we’re back in the Polish countryside. A small shuttle drops off Pawlikowski’s protagonists in the middle of nowhere. They walk to an abandoned church – the one seen earlier with a blown-out sky dome – and stage a suicide pact with pills. They promise themselves to one another in the afterlife, a dark inversion of those otherwise familiar words “until death do us part.” Only in eternity can these lovers be united; their reality has been too unbearable for too long. A final shot then shows Zula and Wiktor sitting on a bench waiting for the end. They’re living corpses. The twists and turns of the Cold War in Pawlikowski’s film have so far been relayed musically: Stalinist show tunes, folk choirs, cool jazz, American and French pop, and Cuban-inspired rumba. Pawlikowski cracked up the map of mid-century Europe and sonically stitched it back together. It’s an alternative, discordant retelling of an otherwise familiar history that recreates the confusion and wearisome experiences of a whole generation (that of Pawlikowski’s own parents) from 1949 to 1964. Cold War proves the dynamic relationship cinema can have to history, which, in Pawlikowski’s hands, becomes a kind of aural mosaic. Interestingly, though, the film’s score is replaced in its final shot of the poisoned lovers by the buzz of cicadas. Cold War suggests here that Wiktor and Zula have finally extricated themselves from the parameters of historical time and space. The fluid map of Cold War Europe, which they spent years crisscrossing, dissolves into nothingness, into the din of the natural world. “Let’s go to the other side; there’s a better view there,” Zula says. She and Wiktor then stand up and walk out of the frame – never to return. They walk off the grid, off the map. The film cuts to black; history is over.
Raymond De Luca is a PhD student at Harvard University, where he studies Russian/Soviet film, literature, and culture. His primary research entails examining how cinema can engage its spectators beyond the strictly visual, that is, how moving images can affect our senses of sound, touch, taste, and smell. The roles played by animals, clothing, and various screens (doors, windows, mirrors, etc.) in film also motivate his interests. He particularly enjoys the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky, Wong Kar-wai, Chantal Akerman, Aleksei Gherman Sr., and Agnès Varda. He holds a BA in history from Haverford College and an MA in Russian from Middlebury College.
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