Could there possibly be a more overworked, banal question of the cultural moment than “What’s your passion?” It’s so ubiquitous, from job interviews to dating apps, that it has supplanted the equally risible “What’s your sign?”—as if anyone could instantly recognize real passion in a society as corporatized, monetized, and intimacy averse as ours. (As pervasive as social media is, sharing everything with everyone is the opposite of intimate, which means private and personal.) Actual passion is incendiary, all-consuming, nonconformist, and frequently antisocial; it can be visionary, as in the arts, or self-destructive, as in l’amour fou, mad love. Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s latest film, Cold War, chronicles—stopping just short of celebrating—one such crazy love, an affair that blazes across a postwar European landscape already strewn with too many ashes, and grimly divided by the Iron Curtain and closing borders.
The attraction is immediate when Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) first meet in 1949 rural Poland. He’s a refined composer and musicologist in his 40s, chafing under Stalinism as he catalogs traditional folk songs and auditions performers for a new touring folk troupe. She is one of the hopefuls, a vibrant 20-something scrapper determined to escape her dead-end lower-class origins. They are mismatched in terms of temperament, sensibility, pragmatism, ethics, and drive, but their sexual connection is so strong that their liaison survives her first betrayal (when she spies on him for a Communist party climber) and the many other disputes and recriminations that follow throughout their 15-year-long on-again, off-again relationship. Their tempestuous union, their ceaseless longing for each other—even when, out of expedience, they enter different partnerships—puts them in the company of such mad lovers in Romantic literature as Catherine and Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and the obsessed suitor in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther.
Romanticism, the hugely influential artistic, intellectual, and political movement that emerged in the late 18th century as a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment, extolled emotion, nature, folk art, individual freedom, and nationalism, and privileged artists over their works. The Romantic ideal of an artist was not someone who existed to create a commercial product but someone who lived to express him- or herself through creativity. During the Romantic era, political repression drove many Polish artists into exile. Like the lovers in Cold War, who repeatedly leave and return to Poland, director Pawlikowski has experienced exile and celebrates individualism and unfettered emotion. His work is consistent with the Romantic tradition in that his subjects are often deeply personal, and made more so by his deliberative methods of filmmaking, which run counter to industry norms.
Even though he won the Cannes Film Festival Best Director prize for Cold War and the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for his previous film, Ida (2013), it’s doubtful that Pawlikowski will ever be a true industry “insider” (or would ever want to be). When he begins filming, his screenplays aren’t “locked,” and they are usually much shorter than the envisioned running time of the completed film. He starts filming with maybe 60 pages or less, shoots for five consecutive days, takes a day off to review footage and recharge his batteries, and then writes some more on the seventh day. He might do as many as 30 takes until he gets what he wants. He is constantly revising, discarding, and resculpting: process is everything. It’s how he remains true to his personal expression.
That, of course, is not how Hollywood makes movies, where a script needs to be final before shooting begins or else the project risks budget overruns. That’s also why few American movies from 2018 are as strong or innovative as Cold War, which also incorporates a half-dozen lacunae between chapters, gaps in the years between Zula and Wiktor’s sojourns across Poland, East Berlin, Paris, Yugoslavia, then back to Paris and Poland again. Because Pawlikowski relishes ambiguity, he expects the viewer to fill in the blanks and imagine what happened offscreen. He claims his inspiration was Michael Apted’s Up series of documentaries, beginning with Seven Up! (1964), for which Apted interviewed a number of British schoolchildren, then returned to record them every seven years thereafter to track how they’d grown and how society had changed.
This might make it sound as if watching Cold War is work, but it’s not. The movie has intrigue and some pointed gallows humor as the lovers try to flee detection and Communist interference. Mostly, it throbs with music and vitality and is sexy as hell. From the austerity of postwar Poland and Soviet concert halls to the bop, jazz, and early rock ‘n’ roll nightclubs in 1950s Paris, the film feels authentic. It’s a story very close to Pawlikowski himself, as it’s based loosely on the lives of the real Zula and Wiktor, his parents, who spent 40 years dodging repression, moving about Europe, loving, fighting, marrying, divorcing, and then remarrying before they died in 1989, just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Most of Pawlikowski’s feature films are in some way autobiographical and reflect his attempts to process his parents’ legacy, his own life in exile, and his return to his native country. When Pawel was 14, his divorced mother married an Englishman and pulled her son from his relatively happy life in Poland to resettle in the UK; Pawlikowski’s first feature, Last Resort (2000), is about a dumped Russian refugee mother and son who are stranded in a small British seaside town. My Summer of Love (2004) follows the doomed passionate lesbian affair between two rebellious English teens who reject their suffocating family circumstances and class distinctions. The Woman in the Fifth (2011) was filmed in Paris after Pawlikowski moved there from England following the death of his Russian wife, and concerns a divorced American writer trying to pull his life back together. Pawlikowksi, who as a youngster was nominally a Catholic, didn’t find out until later in life that his paternal grandmother was Jewish and died in Auschwitz; the feature that he made upon his relocation to Poland, Ida, deals with a young orphaned novitiate’s discovery that her parents were Jews killed in the Shoah.
Maybe only those who have lived through so much trauma, destruction, and reconstruction have the innate ability—or willingness—to self-immolate on the altar of undying love. Knowing firsthand how the fallout of l’amour fou can impact innocent bystanders, Pawlikowski is not positioning his Cold War protagonists as role models. What the film is doing is recognizing their indelible life force and originality; it’s a cri de coeur hurled toward an increasingly hidebound and emotionally stunted era of Western civilization, where a word like “passion” can be reduced to a watered-down cliche, useful only for commodification. v