“We’ve avoided saying certain things. Why bring them up now?” – L’Eclisse
“Two hearts, four eyes, Crying all day and all night/
Dark eyes, you cry because you can’t be together”
– Cold War, opening lyric to “Dwa Serduszka”/“Two Hearts”
Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War: Zimna wojna (2018) is a near-silent film in gesture, movement, and song, rare words exchanged between lovers who wrestle with the limitations of language and the tortured rhythms of bodies coming together and falling apart. Communist-era Polish history, European architecture, and the visual legacy of Pawlikowski’s Italian New Wave godfather, Michelangelo Antonioni, also loom large within the exquisite sighs and strivings of Cold War. In moody black-and-white cinematography that echoes Antonioni’s “trilogy of decadence” and most especially its third film, L’Eclisse (1962), characters are trapped within shadows of abandoned churches and barbed-wire fences, straightjacketed by desire and its disappointments, caught in ideological crosshairs and stared down by forces beyond their control. In that geopolitical and affective space between East and West, rural Poland and Paris, palpable bodies fuse with silhouetted dreams of another world, another way.
Cold War protagonists Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) wear pain and possibility in each glance, each sigh heavy with silent longing, fueled by the affective language of living behind – and dreaming beyond – the Iron Curtain. Beyond character and embedded in each establishing shot of landscape and interior misè-en-scene, one can feel Antonioni’s visual encounter with painful modernity (what Stephen Holden calls a “refined strain of existential melancholy”) resurrected in each beautifully painted frame of Cold War. Wiktor and Joanna’s courtship is set in motion through scenes in which dialogue takes a back seat to melancholic landscape and the intimate play of glances across crowded rooms. As expectant lovers, they linger in unspoken exchanges in back rooms, hallways, and sun-drenched wheat fields. As musicians, they perform resurrected Polish folk songs and mingle at concert receptions, Stalin banners aloft as a menacing reminder of ideological engines whirring in the background, the threat of violence peripheral yet approaching. In these early scenes, before they’ve endured brutal emotional and political-historical gauntlets (separations, border crossings, the Gulag), desire is an affliction and intimacy is experienced at a distance. On the visual frame, they’re rarely seen looking directly at each other – at least not in the same frame – and often captured looking separate ways.
In Zula’s audition and rehearsals, Wiktor sits expectant behind a weathered piano as Joanna stands before him; each refuses to relinquish control to the other, and their respective glances appear in subsequent frames, eye contact thwarted through strategic cinematography and editing. Highlighting these visual choices, both characters refuse to be typecast: Zula’s eyes are too experienced and she’s survived too much already (“He mistook me for my mother so I used a knife to show him the difference”) to be those of an ingénue; Wiktor is neither kind nor cruel, a tuxedoed conductor who’s under the thumb of communist functionaries. Both are guarded in their tentative strivings for connection, which often sparks miscommunication or outright conflict, and their initial sparring is a struggle that morphs but does not fade as the film progresses. L’Eclisse is fueled by a similar push-and-pull rhythm between its central lovers, Vittoria (Monica Vitti) and Piero (Alain Delon): each moment of coming together anticipates their eventual parting, and accentuates the distance between two human bodies, the profound unknowability of anyone. In both films, the central pairings share ambivalence – a simultaneous hesitation and magnetic pull toward each other – and each character is both predatory and vulnerable, amid increasing awareness of how fragile human connection is in the age of atomic bombs and border walls.
Immediately before Zula and Wiktor cross the line of 180 degrees and enter their first embrace, Pawlikowski presents an Antonioni-like pairing of shots: each gazes at the other in wide shots that linger. Their illuminated faces within a sea of anonymous bodies recalls the moment when Vittoria and Piero set eyes on each other in the teeming stock exchange early in L’Eclisse. For both directors, to be seen is to be desired, to become singular, the first step toward being condemned into love. Bodily connection and emotional communion happen in stolen moments, away from other eyes, outside the reach of Church, State, Family. Zula and Wiktor meet in hallways, open fields, darkened streets; Vittoria and Piero come together in empty parks, apartments, and construction sites, never once setting eyes on postcard Rome. Close-up shots on their faces are fraught, often divided by imaginary or actual lines of separation. The lovers of L’Eclisse kiss through windowpanes, lips separated by glass; Antonioni underscores the pervasive alienation that keeps them at odds, even when inches apart. Courtship is a tortured dance of ambivalence and desire, enacted through long glances between lovers who cannot decide whether love will be their salvation or their undoing – or both.
In Pawlikowski and Antonioni’s moody cinematic dreams, both set in the early 1960s, every beginning has its closing shot already embedded: when characters first meet and embrace, there’s sadness in anticipation of their inevitable parting. Each kiss is a preemptive goodbye for Zula and Wiktor – and their forbears (yet contemporaries in historical time) Vittoria and Piero. Pawlikowski and cinematographer Łukasz Żal paint Cold War in black-and-white, and even more than their previous collaboration, Ida (2013), the film resurrects Antonioni’s visual language of lingering in the beautiful hauntings of landscape: establishing shots of trees and grasses blowing in the breeze; darkened interiors with windows that present the possibility of escape to other lives; places where characters emerge and fade in painful encounters within their mid-century misè-en-scene.
We stand behind abandoned lovers, peering over shoulders as their objects of desire disappear into exquisitely framed vanishing points. We watch faces contemplate goodbyes as they anticipate their final separation (the death of love, and in Cold War, also physical death). We follow the slow, patient eye of the auteur that lingers in architectural space long after characters leave the frame, as if the emotional residue of what has transpired envelops each lamppost and beam with an unquenchable longing. Every object is heavy and vibrating with what’s past – the tree-lined streets where they walked and witnessed small unremarkable movements of daily life, the chairs they slouched and cried upon – as if each blade of grass they once touched can still feel their breathing, their sighs, their pain.
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“I Feel Like I’m in a Foreign Country”: Is You Is, or Is You Ain’t My Baby from Poland to Paris
Piero: I feel like I’m in a foreign country.
Vittoria: Funny. That’s how I feel around you.” – L’Eclisse
After failed plans to cross borders together in Berlin and the former Yugoslavia, Wiktor and Zula finally reunite in 1957 Paris. Here the mise-en-scène of Cold War shifts from Polish music halls and churches to Left Bank jazz clubs, midnight riverboats down the Seine, and a spare attic garret with exquisite shafts of light and modernist lines. Transposed into the key of Paris, their love story strives to bring La Vie Bohème to life: Wiktor sweats jazz into piano keys (with more physicality and sadness than permitted in earlier scenes of folk performance), and Joanna turns irresistible chanteuse, sensuality now part of her act. Inside the jazz club, a neon sign announces its name as L’ECLIPSE (the French translation of L’Eclisse); this naming provides the most overt reference to Antonioni’s film, as both visual influence and structure-of-feeling for the emotional-political eclipses of Cold War.
As individual human scale is eclipsed by modern architectures of discipline, technology, and ideology, Wiktor and Zula also inhabit prisons of their own creation: emotional isolation, existential alienation, and a pervasive sadness that descends upon Cold War and takes days to shake off. Like Vittoria in the shadow of the looming industrial towers at the outset of L’Eclisse (shot on location in Mussolini’s architectural-ideological brainchild, the EUR district of Rome), once transposed into the key of Paris, Cold War enters an urban landscape alive with exciting and terrifying possibility. The romantic-creative dream and self-conscious cliché of their Parisian garret days soon becomes a prison of harsh diagonals and fork-tongued combat, a counterpoint to the city’s moody streetlamps and swirls of nightclub smoke. Their fantasy of erotic escape downshifts into an impasse of miscommunication, creative egos, and jealous rages; a sadomasochistic dance of fear and judgment; a portrait of communist-era lovers who’ve internalized an ideological script that creative freedom and self-determination are out of reach. Cold War is a mug shot and a love letter to Poland before the revolutions of ’68, and to all the lovers who wept and died (and Pawlikowski’s parents, the inspiration for Cold War, who survived).
Characters kiss and fall in lust, though more often than not, they’re at visual odds – looking away from each other and away from us, backs to each other and the audience. The female leads and affective centers, Monica Vitti’s Vittoria and Joanna Kulig’s Zula, have more in common than an on-screen physicality matched by unspoken vulnerability (and a preternatural ability to make a simple black dress feel illuminated, woven with life). They portray characters whose self-assertions are simultaneously moments of self-sabotage; Vittoria and Zula are women undone by their searching, their frequent bouts of self-doubt, their ambivalence in a world where unequivocal commitment to Dogma, Family, and Home has been the rule.
The pain of wanting, of desiring, is the cinematic motor. “I wish I didn’t love you. Or that I loved you much more,” Vittoria tells Piero, as much a confession as an accusation. It’s a moment that could be in Cold War, especially as Zula and Wiktor’s tentative musical collaborations and creative differences exacerbate their growing emotional impasse. We learn that love can be an affliction, a dream that may never be enough, too weak in the face of pervasive systems of control. L’Eclisse contains whole sequences that emphasize the smallness of individual stories, bodies caught in the shadows of fascist statues, flagpoles swaying in night winds, flags looming gigantic against dark skies. In an honest admission of their limitations, an acknowledgment of how an external world on the verge of collapse has bled into intimate spaces, Vittoria laments: “Here, everything’s so difficult. Even love.”
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“A Fragile Peace”: In the End Is a Beginning
The outside world conspires against both sets of lovers, and though they experience different on-screen fates, they similarly fade from the frame, replaced by landscape. Both directors believe in the long take, the stationary camera that keeps seeing (and longing for more) after characters have ventured beyond the frame. Cold War’s closing shot at a remote crossroads in Poland powerfully recalls L’Eclisse’s final 8-minute silent symphony of anonymous pedestrians at the Roman intersection where a bus stop and construction site converge. After aerial views of their respective crossroads, followed by close-ups on quiet faces below, the sun literally sets on each film. In these finales of coming and going, leaving (and in the case of Zula and Wiktor, dying) is reframed an act of love as much as loss, love, and death as the twin crossroads that bookend the film.
At the close of Cold War, Zula and Wiktor swallow pills in a matrimonial suicide, a private ritual held at an abandoned church in the Polish woods, a site revisited and reclaimed from an early scene. Vows exchanged and fate decided, they then sit side-by-side at an empty bus stop amid the desolate yet beautiful landscape of a single tree amid waving grasses. In this exquisitely framed shot, the viewer enters a moving painting, shades of Wyeth’s Christina’s World inserted into Bruegel’s Harvesters – or in cinematic space, the open plains of Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven reframed in black and white. They walk across the dirt road and the camera shifts to their point of view, revealing the beauty their weary eyes see: their final glimpse, the final shot. Instead of capturing individual glances exchanged in subsequent frames (the visual pattern that sets the film in motion and shapes so much of Cold War), the camera’s framing of our lovers gaze is here exchanged for their view of the empty crossroads and swaying fields, as if landscape is all that remains. The film’s final “word” is a silent point-of-view shot of rural Poland in winter, the misè-en-scene where it all began, as character dissolves and landscape consumes all.
As in this closing frame of Cold War, Vittoria and Piero famously do not appear in the entire final scene of L’Eclisse. In a quietly harrowing penultimate scene, amid promises to return to the intersection where they meet each day, they say farewell in gestures more powerful than words: faces touching yet refusing eye contact, each contemplating their inevitable parting. The Roman street where L’Eclisse then draws to its close is bustling with anonymous life-in-motion (pedestrians crossing, passengers at a bus stop, baby carriages, the rhythmic trotting of horses) though free of our protagonists, haunted by the afterimage of their bodies entwined. These twin crossroads are where the lovers of L’Eclisse and Cold War fade and get subsumed by the anonymity of landscape.
“I never believed in all this folksy stuff,” says a communist middleman in Cold War. And yet that’s precisely what Pawlikowski and Antonioni dedicate these films to: representing the torment and struggle of very specific people, tied to specific cultures on the verge of eclipse, catapulted into an anonymous modernity that cultivates silence yet cannot thwart the desire for interpersonal communion. Amid the characters’ painful longings and their anxious encounters with a shifting modern Europe, these films are quests for meaning and transcendence beyond church, state, and family. On screen and between bodies, we bear witness to black-and-white flashes of that amorphous and transformative thing called love – and while love may not be these characters’ salvation, it lingers in moments of quiet cinematic beauty, haunts landscapes that persist beyond their individual lives, and opens a window for their audience into what others see and feel.
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All images are screenshots from the films’ respective DVDs.