Conservatives often struggle to portray the true cost of socialism in terms of freedom and wasted opportunity. For a generation that doesn’t remember the Cold War or the joyful celebrations when the Berlin Wall collapsed, communism’s tremendous personal cost to millions of lives is no longer obvious.
Every so often, a film comes along that shows the depth of those costs in a poignant and beautiful way. So it is with the movie “Cold War,” a masterpiece from Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, nominated for three Academy Awards and now available to stream on Amazon (free for Prime members). The movie tells the story of a couple caught between the iron grip of Communism on their home country and their artistic ambitions, deprived of the chance to be both authentic and free.
If we forget about the setting of “Cold War”—Poland in the early 1950s, under imposed Communist rule—the movie could be merely a beautifully shot film about two artists who share a tumultuous love story. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is an older composer and pianist, and the director of the Mazowsze (called Mazurka in the movie), the real-life famous Polish song-and-dance ensemble that popularized folk songs in the region. Zula (Joanna Kulig) is a younger singer, a talented upstart with a troubled and abusive family past that made the Mazurka her unlikely route to artistic success.
But the film doesn’t open with their romance. Instead, Pawlikowski spends the initial half hour of the movie documenting how the Mazurka painstakingly built its authentic repertoire of folk songs and dances, and how they formed the basis for its great popularity. Villagers from all around the country record their songs for Wiktor and Irena, his ethnographer and choreographer, songs later transformed for the stage by Wiktor’s talents. Their dedication to the songs of Poland becomes the basis for the ensemble’s success, and gives Zula her chance to shine as a rising star.
But under the communist regime, nothing was permitted a reprieve from ideology. The Mazurka’s success ensures that it must bend its artistic integrity to sing the diktats of the Central Committee. In a meeting with Party apparatchiks, Irena refuses to destroy the artistic merit of the Mazurka, defiantly telling the Party that the peasants of Poland do not sing songs about communist land reform.
But her outburst is in vain; Lech, the “political officer” of the ensemble, shuts down all opposition to it becoming a Party mouthpiece. A banner bearing Joseph Stalin’s face rises behind the choir, and the project is fatally compromised to its creators. Although Wiktor is initially quieter than Irena, whom we never see again after she walks out of the first corrupted performance, he understands that the Party will not allow him to keep his integrity as an artist.
But Zula, a thoroughly apolitical person, does not yet understand how the intrusion of the communist apparatus will damage her artistic endeavors. She believes she can strike a bargain with the regime: sing a song here or there about land reform, spin a few lies for political officers, and continue to enjoy her first real success as an artist and her personal life with Wiktor.
When Wiktor hatches a plan for them to escape to the West during a tour stop in Berlin (still shockingly easy in the early days before the Berlin Wall), she doesn’t appear at the appointed meeting spot and he crosses alone. Although haunted by his love for Zula, Wiktor carves out a life for himself in Paris, then the premiere destination for “exiled” artists from the Eastern Bloc, playing in a jazz club and integrating himself into the artistic circles of the city.
While she continues to star in the Mazurka, Zula also cannot forget, so she finds a way to legally cross into the West, marrying a random Italian (she excuses the betrayal with “it wasn’t a church wedding, it doesn’t count”) and using that status to legally reunite with Wiktor in Paris. For the first time, “happy ever after” becomes a possibility for the couple. Instead, their time in Paris reveals to them why separation from their Polish roots undermines their artistic authenticity.
Wiktor attempts to build Zula’s place in Parisian artistic society, and to create for them both the careers they might have had in Poland were it not for the totalitarian intrusion of the communist state. But Paris is not Warsaw, and their milieu not only changes the superficial aspects of their lives, but also what they produce as artists and how they “sell” their talents.
Wiktor embellishes Zula’s painful family past to give her a backstory to sell to the French artistic set, and attempts to turn her into a kind of expat chansoniste, arranging French poetry for her to sing. He even re-writes their signature song from the Mazurka into French for Zula to record. The culmination of his efforts is a record well-accepted by the artists of Paris, who throw the couple a party for its release.
Despite finding artistic success in the eyes of Parisians, Zula believes the record, and their lives in Paris, are inauthentic. She feels degraded by Wiktor’s marketing efforts, and decries the record as “a bastard,” tossing it in the gutter.
Despite being able to succeed as a singer on the Parisian scene, she doesn’t feel as genuine as when she starred in the Polish Mazurka. Zula still fundamentally misunderstands the truth about the totalitarian regime that Wiktor learned at the meeting with Irena and the Party. She still believes she can have a meaningful artistic career and personal independence in the land of her birth. She makes the greatest mistake of their lives and, against all expectations, decides to return to Poland.
Wiktor has no such misunderstandings about the communist regime; he knows what awaits him in Poland is the destruction of his artistic career and possibly his life. Nevertheless, he cannot live without Zula, and decides to follow her. Matthew Continetti writes that this is the central paradox of “Cold War:” “The imperatives of private life lead Wiktor to sneak back into a land whose politics make private life impossible.”
We see him next in a labor camp for political prisoners, pianist’s hands permanently broken. It is only then that Zula understands the nature of communism, and that there is no bargain possible. She sells herself both artistically, performing the cheap ballads of whatever country the communist government wished to cultivate as an ally at the moment, and literally, marrying Lech and bearing his son, to use his government connections to get Wiktor out of the camps.
By the end of the film, any possibility of maintaining their artistic and personal integrity has been stripped from Wiktor and Zula, along with any hope for happiness together. They return to the countryside where Wiktor once gathered the folk songs for the Mazurka. There, they marry as Catholic Poles, performing their own ceremony in a bombed-out cathedral, perhaps symbolizing the hollowed-out ruins of Poland, and commit suicide.
Who knows whether Wiktor and Zula could have made it as a couple; perhaps she was too temperamental, and he too assuming. But those who read the film as a doomed love story are missing that the imposition of the communist system on their country robbed them of the chance to find out. Tied to each other and to a nation transformed beyond recognition, they were left no space for their relationship to play out as it would between two free people.
Ultimately, the cost of the socialist system is the disappearance of that individual space—the space for people to love, worship, build careers, create art and families. The cost of that kind of system cannot be measured on an economist’s balance sheet. It’s measured in tragic and unfulfilled lives like Wiktor’s and Zula’s.