December 2018 – January 2019

Arts & Letters

Pawel Pawlikowski’s perfectly formed ‘Cold War’

By Shane Danielsen
Not a moment is wasted in what could be the Polish director’s masterpiece

The best novel I read in 2018 was published almost three decades earlier, in 1989. Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline is a thing of stern, almost daunting intelligence and devastating emotional acuity; it’s also, miraculously, just 101 well-spaced pages long. A quote on the back of the New Directions paperback edition, from poet Joseph Brodsky, says, “Reading time is approximately four hours. [Brodsky clearly liked to linger.] Remembering time, as for its author: the rest of one’s life.” Which sounds more like a Mastercard commercial than a literary encomium, I know. But given that I’ve since re-read the book twice, he may have a point.

Or consider one of my favourite recent albums: Tony Molina’s Kill the Lights. Which, from its Spoon-adjacent title to its heart-on-sleeve influences – Big Star, Teenage Fanclub, Elliott Smith – situates itself squarely within a tradition of harmony-laden, minor-key jangle rock. What makes it unusual, however, is its brevity. Of the first four tracks, not one exceeds 1:19 in length; the fifth, running to a princely 2:01, seems by comparison like “Stairway to Heaven”. The entire album clocks in at a tidy 14 minutes – three minutes longer than Molina’s 12-song debut, 2013’s Dissed and Dismissed.

But the album works, and not simply as a novelty. Like some power-pop Anton Webern, Molina is an artist of compression. Each song is a perfectly crafted miniature, assembled for maximum effect; it glitters for an instant, delights, and is gone. Likewise, Tierra Whack’s similarly superb hip-hop set Whack World: each of the 15 tracks lasts precisely one minute, not a second more nor less.

Saturated as we now are with Content, it’s easy to see the appeal of the small, good thing. Whenever I pause to contemplate the burden before me – my Netflix queue, the unread issues of The New Yorker and London Review of Books amassing on my Kindle, the songs and feature films filling my hard drive, the stack of books piled beside my bed – I feel about to hyperventilate. A number of friends have told me Babylon Berlin is terrific, and I’m a sucker for anything set in that city, my much-missed former home. But I can’t deny my heart sank a little when I saw there were 16 episodes to get through. (It remains, as yet, unwatched.)

It’s not a matter of consuming simply in order to move on to the next distraction; rather, it’s a matter of taking satisfaction in the concise, succinct and self-contained. There was, unquestionably, more that Jaeggy might have included in her novel. More incidents she could have described, more flashes of lacerating introspection or analysis she may have evoked. Likewise, Molina might have … I don’t know, repeated a chorus? Played a solo? But in each case you had the feeling – as you often do in Joan Didion’s fiction, or Diane Williams’ – of a temperament innately hostile to excess, repelled by the showy maximalism that characterises so many better-known (and invariably male) artists, from David Foster Wallace to Kanye West.

The result is exacting yet not austere: a ruthless minimum that somehow does not forsake the material pleasures of style. On the contrary, their surface is (as Didion once said of her sentences) like a stone polished to extreme smoothness. Finely worked, shorn of every superfluous element. Like Japanese calligraphy, or a sculpture by Donald Judd. An aesthetic of omission.

By general consensus the Cold War lasted 44 years, from 1947 to 1991. Cold War (in cinemas December 26) clocks in at an admirable 85 minutes. Yet within that limited span, writer-director Paweł Pawlikowski finds time not only to depict the lifespan of a relationship, but to sketch an entire epoch of modern history. Inspired by (and dedicated to) his parents, it might be his masterpiece.

It opens in 1949. Ethnographers Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) are travelling through rural Poland recording local folk songs, much as Alan Lomax did, almost two decades earlier, in America’s South. They’re accompanied on their journey by a government minder, Kaczmarek, who will later oversee the culmination of this project: a musical ensemble known as Mazurek, assembled from the best of the amateurs in order to preserve and showcase Polish cultural traditions.

At one such stop, they encounter Zula (Joanna Kulig), a peasant girl with a spirited voice and an unusually complicated backstory. Far from the naive villager she claims to be, she actually hails from the mining town of Radom, where she escaped from a reformatory, having reportedly murdered her father a few years earlier. (Later, when pressed for details, she displays a refreshing lack of remorse: “He mistook me for my mother,” she murmurs, “so I used a knife to show him the difference.”)

Her voice is raw, untrained; her dancing needs work. Irena is unconvinced – does Zula really have a talent for anything but reinvention? – but Wiktor is smitten, drawn as much to her potential as to her beauty. And from that moment on, the trajectory of both their lives is irrevocably altered. They begin sleeping together, and within two years Zula has become Mazurek’s featured performer, a kind of folkloric Adele, as the troupe tours the various friendly nations of the Eastern Bloc.

The Party, inevitably, has some notes (“It would be useful,” one official tells Kaczmarek, “to add to your repertoire something about Agricultural Reform”), and Wiktor, a musician rather than an ideologue, chafes beneath their interference. But when Zula confesses, on the way to East Berlin, that she’s been ordered to report on him to Kaczmarek – who, she adds, has also begun showing a more than strictly professional interest in her – Wiktor understands that his usefulness is coming to an end. In desperation, he tries to convince her to defect. Unfortunately, her relationship with Kaczmarek might already be more advanced, and more reciprocal, than Wiktor suspects.

There has of course been another recent film about a world-weary man and the callow younger woman he shepherds to stardom. But Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born, by comparison, manages somehow to feel simultaneously overwrought and superficial … which is to say, quintessentially American. Its lead performances are both strong, but the drama lumbers; it strains for the emotional force, the deep, anguished registers of loss and longing, that Pawlikowski achieves so effortlessly. Perhaps because this love story plays out across some of the deeper fault lines of 20th-century history, its stakes feel higher, its sense of fate more affecting. (Cooper’s film, incidentally, is 134 minutes long.)

As Zula, Joanna Kulig is extraordinary, the most noteworthy European discovery (in the West: she’s been a star in her own country from the age of 15) since Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread. Kulig’s soft, pouty features, her combination of toughness and sensuality, recall Léa Seydoux – but she has a feral, febrile intensity that’s entirely her own. When she drunkenly dances to “Rock Around the Clock” at a boho party in Paris, it’s a moment both of liberation and of abnegation, the taste of a freedom she’s not altogether convinced she desires or deserves.

Born in Warsaw, Pawlikowski lived and worked for many years in London – first making documentaries for the BBC, then moving into features. His 2004 drama My Summer of Love, starring a then-unknown Emily Blunt, won the Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature at the Edinburgh Film Festival during my tenure there. But the death of his wife, in 2006, precipitated a return to his homeland (“It’s a place of simplicity and coherence,” he told The Guardian, “and that’s where I am in my life”) as well as a thorough reconsideration of his subject matter and methods.

He re-emerged in 2013 with Ida, the story of a young Polish woman, on the verge of taking her vows as a Catholic nun, who discovers from her aunt that her parents were actually Jews, murdered while in hiding during World War Two. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and – its end credits notwithstanding – ran for just 78 minutes. But long enough to haunt you (as Brodsky would say) for the rest of your life.

Set, like this one, in the murky hinterland of Poland’s communist era, it was shot in a fine-grained, lustrous monochrome, in Academy Ratio – two stylistic choices the director reprises here. The former implies the ultimate unknowability of the past – nothing is fixed, either personally or historically; there are merely innumerable shades of grey – while the relatively boxy frame of the latter communicates a sense of confinement, the narrow options that defined the period.

Wiktor emigrates; Zula, more pragmatic, does not. The pair then encounter each other a number of times over the next 15 years, in various cities, from Paris to Split – and, to evoke that stone metaphor again, Pawlikowski’s mode of narration is like a pebble skipping across the surface of a lake. We see only the splashes, as these passionate but mismatched souls come together; the intervals between their meetings are elided. No mere structural conceit, this suggests an uncommon clarity of purpose – it feels like an epic told in fragments, or an album comprised of brief, sad love songs. Not a second is wasted, yet the film never feels rushed; we sense, rather, the long, deep river of history, picking up individuals in its current, and drowning them at its leisure.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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