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Take That! Cold War: A Love Story?

My boyfriend Gabriel has recently graduated from Central Film School in London and is now a freelance editor, available for all your post-production needs (please hire him). His top three directors of all time are Charlie Chaplin, Akira Kurosawa, and Richard Donner. When he really likes a movie, he goes back to see it again the next day. 

Our relationship started with film –– during a Tommy Wiseau screening –– and film fights continue to dominate our precious time together. We tend to go in circles, returning to the same topics over weeks to work out our stances. The fact that he’s white means I can accuse him of bigotry if I find myself losing an argument about, say, Black Panther. (This is a precious card that I only play about twice a year.) 

This Valentine’s Day weekend we revisit a movie about love, politics, and music: Cold War, a 2018 black-and-white film by Paweł Pawlikowski set in Communist Poland, is the story of Wiktor, a music teacher, and Zula, a singer and dancer, over two decades. Is Cold War a love story? 

Jiaqi: I wish it wasn’t a love story. I am tired of stories about young women being ‘educated’ through their relationships with much older men who are simultaneously their bosses/professors. And the ending –– spoiler alert –– where they commit joint suicide was just so overdone and melodramatic. 

Gabriel: You’re right. I almost felt bad when the movie ended and I saw it was dedicated to Pawlikowski’s parents. I wanted to say, ‘Your parents were boring.’ He tried to make a love story… but he accidentally made a really interesting movie. I think that’s why the first half feels so good. It’s the part where he, as a filmmaker, gets to explore the world and what Communist Poland used to look like. It tricks the audience into thinking what the movie’s about: being trapped in the system. When I got to the scene in Paris and I realised we’re only halfway in the movie, I thought, ‘Cool. Now it’s going to show them getting trapped in capitalist systems, too.’ Even though that’s what happens in the film, Pawlikowski doesn’t approach it critically at all, and presents it as is. All the drama is sucked out of the movie.

Jiaqi: You’re right that it’s a very gorgeous, sensitive, almost ethnographic investigation of life in postwar Poland. The first shot where the old men are singing folk music reminded me of Yellow Earth, a 1984 Chinese movie that’s also about music, Communism, and infatuation. I think there’s a lot of value in approaching a nation’s traumatic history through a documentary-like lens. But at the same time, I have personally seen a lot of love stories set against socio-political history. I don’t see what it contributes in that sense. Cold War doesn’t want to critique. It just wants to indulge in that feeling. 

Gabriel: I always have a lot of respect for movies that will let us just enjoy some music, like this one, or the Mozart film Amadeus. This ties into my central problem with Cold War: how biased it is towards capitalism. The ending frustrates me because it had a chance to be more than just indulging in this nostalgia. It reminds me of one time when I was in Carnegie Hall, and I bought myself a chocolate chip cookie. I took a bite out of the cookie, and found out it was oatmeal raisin. That’s the film. It’s full of promise, but once you bite in, it’s just oat and raisins.

Consensus: Cold War is two movies stitched together. It both is and isn’t about love. But then again, neither are real-life love stories.