In conversation, Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski keeps returning to one word: elliptical.
His new film, the sweeping monochrome love story Cold War, is elliptical. With his last film, 2015’s Oscar-winning Ida, he learned how to tell stories elliptically. Certainly, Pawlikowski’s recent films are distinguished as much by what they don’t depict on screen as what they do. Unfolding across Europe in the decades following the Second World War, Cold War follows the fractious, on-again-off-again romance of Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a composer and pianist working for a Polish state school, and Zula (Joanna Kulig), an exceptionally talented young singer. The characters, and the general arc of the story, are influenced by the director’s own parents. Pawlikowski’s mother ran away at 17 to join the ballet when she met his father, who was studying medicine.
“They fell in love,” Pawlikowski explains over the phone. “But very quickly there was some betrayal, especially from my father who had this old-fashioned idea that women had to fit in. And my mother could give as good as she got.” Pawlikowski sought to pay tribute less to the details of his parents’ biographies, but to the nature of a relationship beset by breakups and remarriages, by the separation of time and space, by absence and reconciliation, by what he calls, “all this to-ing and fro-ing, all these twists and turns.”
To this end, Cold War repeatedly dips into those ellipses. The film cleaves its two lovers not only along lines of East/West politics, but ambition. The minx-ish and ambitious Zula tastes stardom in the company of Soviet-era government apparatchiks, where Wiktor is suffocated by the the top-down regime of artistic production. When Wiktor slips into the West following a concert in East Berlin, Zula stays back. It’s the first of many such separations, which increasingly feel as if they’re only setting the stage for progressively more dramatic reunions. Pawlikowski drew inspiration from the Up series of documentary films, which catch up with a group of Brits every seven years, and Ingmar Bergman’s similarly piecemeal Scenes From a Marriage. “It’s so moving, when you jump a few years,” he says. “Sometimes it’s eerie, sometimes it’s touching.”
He goes on: “In these black holes, in these ellipses, that’s where all the love happens. Someone builds the missing person up in their head, to something that’s not even humanly possible.” Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and all that. Pawlikowski also elides stock depictions of the geopolitical tensions that lend Cold War its title. In one sequence, Wiktor returns to Poland, is branded a defector and sentenced to a work camp. We see nothing of his labour, his toil or his struggles. Such Gulag Archipelago-ish details don’t seem to interest Pawlikowski, whose previous film, Ida, similarly viewed the legacy of the Holocaust from a cock-eyed vantage. “After Ida, I had confidence that you can tell this kind of story well,” the director explains. “You don’t have to be boring and biopic-y about it … I didn’t want to waste time explaining. It’s never good cinema.”
Whether Ida or Cold War qualify as a “good cinema,” simply based on their ability to elide historical reality, is ultimately a matter of taste. Yet, in both Ida and Cold War, something nags about the director’s refusal to confront the material horrors of the 20th-century Europe. It’s as if he’s using aestheticism (and asceticism) to cover for a bourgeois faintness of heart. (Indeed, both Ida and Cold War are, in their exacting black-and-white compositions and compacted minimalism, very deliberately beautiful movies.)
It comes back to that word: ellipses. In grammar, the ellipses is used because the meaning of a statement can still be inferred despite the omitted information. In the whole course of human affairs, however, there may well be a benefit in restating such omittable information – not just for force or effect, but to reaffirm the sheer weight and power of historical memory. One can mull the degree to which an artist bears a responsibility to historical reality, and how to manage that responsibility without wrenching a given work into a didactic history lesson. What rankles a bit about Pawlikowski’s recent films is that he ducks the nitty-gritty simply because he finds such deeply sordid particulars clichéd, trite or otherwise boring.
Pawlikowski certainly seems less interested in how Cold War reflects the past then how it will play in the present – especially in a Poland undergoing an agonizing right-wing resurgence. “The tendency towards authoritarianism is very strong,” he says of his home country, which he returned to six years ago following an extended stay in England. “There’s a sense of siege; like we’re alone and only one part can save use from this insurgence of liberal, fascist, communist, gay conspiracies, Jewish conspiracies.”
Where characters in Cold War’s Poland adopt the jargon of Marxist-Leninism to advance their careers, Pawlikowski sees modern apparatchiks copping patriotic jargon. “The Stalinist Ministry of Culture in the film tries to co-op art, co-opt music, to tell their narratives, the one-and-only correct narrative,” he explains. “Today, they try to manipulate – through subsidies, not through prisons and murder – culture in a disturbing way.”
It’s a case of history repeating – or rhyming, as Twain would have it – that speaks to the value and urgency of unearthing and restating humanity’s worst offences, and rekindling the memories that may be more conveniently left to leave un-remembered. And it stands as a harsh lesson, illuminating what happens when the past gets lost in ellipses, disappearing into the void.
Cold War opened Jan. 25 in Toronto and Vancouver.