Meanwhile, “The Captain” took a more granular approach to oppression. As I noted in these digital pages, Robert Schwentke’s tale of a Nazi deserter who pretended to be a captain in order to escape the front line — and whose lies kept escalating until he ordered a mass murder in a prison camp — is a striking insight into the untruths we’ll accept, and the evils we’ll commit, to save ourselves.
“Cold War,” which follows a couple that hail from Soviet-occupied Poland over a decade and a half as fate and governments conspire to keep them apart, may be the most personal of these films. Pawel Pawlikowski’s film is about the manifest ways in which totalitarianism deforms and degrades: neither the arts, nor love, nor one’s own body is safe from the authoritarian impulse.
“Cold War” opens in 1949, where Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) are traveling the Polish countryside with Lech Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), a government apparatchik. The trio are searching for villagers and their songs, eager to form a troupe of singers and dancers who can export the culture of the Polish fatherland to the rest of the Soviet bloc. Zula (Joanna Kulig) is one of the artists chosen by Wiktor — she has something special, he tells Irena, who can tell just by both her appearance and the moony look in his eyes what that “something” is — to perform the traditional music they are presenting to the world.
The troupe’s initial performance goes well. The apparatchik is pleased! But another bureaucrat wonders if there isn’t something more that Wiktor and Irena can do for the cause. “I think it’s time to add something new to your repertoire,” the functionary tells them. “About land reform, world peace and the threats to it. A strong number about the leader of the world proletariat. And we, in turn, will do everything in our power to show our gratitude.”
Irena balks at the decree, saying “the rural population does not sing about land reform, peace and leaders.” Lech, shushing her, assures the government man that they will comply. When Irena looks to Wiktor for help, he simply casts his eyes down. Pawlikowski then cuts to the ensemble’s next performance, which culminates in a paean to Stalin: A portrait of the man of steel rises behind the singers as they praise his name. The crowd gives the song a standing ovation. Irena, aware that her dream of delivering the songs of the village to the world has been perverted, stands. But she does not clap. Instead she walks out of the hall — and out of the film altogether.
It is just the first of many corruptions communist repression will unveil. Another comes shortly thereafter, as Wiktor and Zula lay in the grass together, lovers like any other. But Zula has something to tell Wiktor: She betrays his confidences regularly to Lech. She’s an informer. Nothing too scandalous — nothing that will get Wiktor in trouble — but enough to sate the bureaucrat’s curiosity. This enforced devotion to the regime and betrayal of their relationship manifests itself again moments later, when she fails to defect to West Berlin with him during a trip to Germany. And the state again inserts itself between them a few scenes later, when Wiktor travels to Yugoslavia to see the troupe perform: He is rousted from his seat in the theater, hauled away to the train station and sent back to Paris, where he has settled.
Their love endures despite these obstacles, but the world has broken them both, driven them each a bit mad. After reconnecting in Paris, Zula again flees, back to their homeland of Poland. Lost without her, Wiktor gives himself up to the authorities and is promptly imprisoned in a work camp. When Zula visits him, she sees the final triumph of tyranny: over the body. His once-slender fingers are mangled, deformed. The digits that had nimbly danced over piano keys now stand askew from one another. You couldn’t imagine him playing so much as “Chopsticks” any longer. The state has taken everything from him: his freedom, his talent, his love. Eventually it will also take his will to live.
“Cold War” is almost cruelly efficient, transporting us through 15 years of love and heartbreak in less than an hour and a half. It packs more of an emotional punch than any 140-minute movie this year. It’s one of the best pictures of 2018, in no small part because it is such a stark reminder of the horrors of totalitarianism.