“Cold War”: Not Cold Enough

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

COLD WAR received an impressive number of favorable reviews, including one from Ron Silliman, who described it as “a wonderful flic, the greatest Jerzy Koziński tale Truffaut ever filmed.” But which Koziński tale, and which Truffaut film? Koziński’s THE PAINTED BIRD is hardly acknowledged as an exemplary instance of original story-telling; as for Truffaut, I watched JULES AND JIM for about the seventh time in my life a few months ago, and would be happy to see it again in the near future. If I watch COLD WAR again, it will be because someone has paid me.

COLD WAR is a version of Romeo and Juliet, with a post-World War II division of Europe serving as the Montague and Capulet households. The problem with COLD WAR’s story is that it fails to take into account what happens to the performance troupe when its music director defects. COLD WAR makes it appear that that decision only has personal consequences, and that no one in the troupe would be held accountable or questioned. Anyone familiar with the reprehensible predations of Stalinist social control would know that life would have become quite miserable for those who in any way were associated with the defector; yet the story acts as if nothing changed for the troupe. I find this completely implausible.

The story becomes even more problematic when the obsessed lover goes to Yugoslavia, a trip I once again found difficult to believe. Why would anyone with an ounce of common sense risk exposing their well-being to the always already vengeance of a Communist dictatorship? Yes, I get the answer. “That’s how strong my love is….” Romeo risks his life, too, to see his Juliet. It’s an old story, but it does not age well in this updating.

I will concede that the final ten minutes of the film, in which the lovers — like R&J — choose death as the seal on their marriage vows, are a quietly lyrical absorption in which our consciousness as viewers mingles with the subdued, effusive lusciousness of stark imagery. The acting, cinematography, and mise-en-scene come together seamlessly under the guidance of Pawel Pawlikowski. The final two minutes, in particular, in which the lovers walk off-screen in order to see “how the river looks on the other side,” are as permeating in the memory as any conclusion I have ever seen. It’s not enough, however, to redeem the gaps in the story leading up to it. I gather it is inspired by the relationship of Pawlikoski’s parents. An account that hewed as closely as possible to their only child’s memories might well have joined “Freeze, Die, Come to Life” (Vitali Kanevsky, 1989) as a classic of the Cold War period.

For those wishing to read about the backstory:
https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/in-cold-war-pawel-pawlikowski-tells-his-parents-love-story