Saturday, 8 December 2018

Pawlikowski's Cold War - a short review

Talented musician falls for aspiring artiste - the relationship is stormy, on-off over the years; she makes it big, he makes it big, they split up, get back together, will it last this time?

Is this La La Land? Are we in New York New York?

Director Paweł Pawlikowski retells an old story Polish-style, black and white, set in the darkest days of communism. The screenplay that Pawlikowski co-wrote with Janusz Głowacki (refer here and here) draws deeply on the experiences of exile of both men, of leaving communist Poland for the artistic world of the free West. Best known for his Oscar-winning film Ida (2013), the bulk of Pawlikowski's work was created in the UK. (I was surprised to learn that From Moscow to Pietushki with Benny Yerofeyev, made in 1990 shortly before Yerofeyev died, had been directed by Pawlikowski - Paul Pawlikowski as was).

For me, the prism of the fictional state song and dance ensemble Mazurek portrayed in the film, based on the real-life Mazowsze, has a strong family connection. Below: not a still from Cold War, but a photo taken by my father...

My father's brother, Zdzisław Dembiński, was a member of Mazowsze in those post-war years, the first violinist in the orchestra. The early scenes in Cold War, showing how the ensemble was recruited (and why) and how they were trained, and their overseas trips, were based on fact. As such, my uncle toured the world with the ensemble - as the film showed, at first only to fraternal states in the 'camp of peace' (ie the Soviet bloc), later, after the thaw that followed Stalin's death, to other countries around the world, extending People's Poland's soft power through folk music and dance across the capitalist West.

It was in 1958, when Mazowsze played at the Brussels Expo, that my father met his brother Zdzich for the first time since the Warsaw Uprising. My father (left) with Zdzich (holding violin case), the tour bus behind them.

Later, in the 1960s, Mazowsze played London, at the Royal Festival Hall - which we went to see when I was a boy. We had all the Mazowsze records (The Polish Song and Dance Ensemble Vols. 1-4, Wujek Zdzich is seen on the cover of Vol. 2); my parents would play the records a lot, so I ended up knowing all the songs, several of which are used in the film's soundtrack. The familiarity helps.

This 1951 documentary about Mazowsze is worth watching on a number of levels; not least to see how communist propaganda made its way into every aspect of life and art. The Polish countryside, collectivised, its past idealised, its folklore harnessed to the purposes of the Socialist Fatherland.

Cold War is about the madness of love - how it drives people to commit irrational and desperate acts. It also shows the brutally callous nature of the communist system, how it exploited people's weaknesses and subsumed the individual to ideological imperatives.

Cold War won Pawlikowski a Best Director award at this year's Cannes film festival. Will it win an Oscar, as Ida did? Personally, I doubt it - the film is indeed very good, but for me I was not haunted by it as a whole although the premise is strong and a great many shots will stay with me. In particular the scene where rock'n'roll explodes into the global consciousness. Above all the atmosphere, the klimat of time and place, were brilliantly portrayed (somehow easier to achieve in black-and-white than in colour).

This time three years ago:
"Extreme weather events are now a feature of the British climate"

This time five years ago:
Cheaper public transport for Varsovians

This time six years ago:
Swans on ice

This time seven years ago:

This time eight years year:
What's the English for kombinować?

This time nine years ago:
The demographics of jazz

This time 11 years ago:
A day in Poznań


DC said...

Cold War was chosen as the opener of the EU Film Showcase here in Washington, and was screened about a week ago. The second time in four years that Poland had the honor.

adthelad said...

Perhaps off the point but I hope you will forgive me - your blog today reminded me of this video and more concretely of your fears concerning war as a result of Brexit, or should I say the breaking apart of the EU.
George Friedman makes a compelling case for the likelihood of war and I thought you might be interested in his observations and his thoughts concerning Poland,

Michael Dembinski said...

@ adthelad

Thanks for the Friedman link. I saw him speaking last year in Sopot. The one point he fails to make is that the real reason there's never been a war between the nuclear powers is precisely because they are nuclear powers.

But Putin is wily. Before he invades, say, Latvia, he will have prepared the West using the bullshit arguments of his useful idiots on left and right, so when in little green men go in, it will be about 'removing the fascist government which is trampling human rights of Russian minority' AND about 'removing the LGBTQ-promoting globalist elite which is planning to import millions of Arab refugees to Latvia' at the same time.

I do not worry about anyone else being the source of a war in our children's immediate future than Vladimir Putin. Literally no one.