by Guy Walker
It begins with optimism rising out of the rubble. Wiktor Warski, played by Tomasz Kot, and his colleague Irena (Agata Kulesza) begin as ethnomusicologists, touring Poland’s post-War ramshackled bourgs, its residents doughtily croaking out their best attempts of favorite songs they grew up learning. It’s a designated attempt to categorize and resuscitate the most deserving marks of a Polish identity, to modernize its quaintest musical traditions for a well-founded pride, like an endangered language that is then broadcasted for others to notice its potency. Country peasants are recruited to audition, baited to step out of their lives of slop and moth-eaten tweeds, and earn a spot with the newly formed national folk ensemble, learn choreographed song and dance numbers that best represent their musical heritage.
It’s important, briefly, to frame this in the context of the cannibalistic depression of the Cold War, and what it meant for cultural identity. The Youtube channel, Cuck Philosophy, presents absorbing and well-informed videos that typically analyze elements of pop culture through some applicable philosophical lens: “Hegelian Recognition and Incels;” “The Late Capitalism of K-Pop.” Or more generally, on what makes Jordan Peterson so wrong about postmodernism, which, although satisfying to watch, still requires watching Peterson squeal and whimper about Derrida’s Notion of the Centre, as he’s seemingly always on the edge of bursting into tears, his bones crumbling like saltine crackers, his hair pomaded with Crisco so a curling head-pube dangles somewhere around his forehead, trying to look whimsical. But there’s another important video that analyzes the rise of World Music in the context of the end of the Cold War and the proceeding spread of neoliberalism. When the Berlin Wall fell, it was thought by many as the final stage in our collective sociocultural evolution, that Western liberal democracy had finally claimed victory, such presumption paraphrased neatly in Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. Not that different from the First World War considered to be the war to end all wars. Much the same was believed about the Second World War. But, when much of the West’s identity was built around iterations of being “better dead than red,” and defending themselves against the insufferable Red Menace, shuffling out products of a political industry dependent on fear of the Other, the West spiraled into something resembling an identity crisis.
Much of the entertainment industry is sanctioned and propelled by careful state propaganda. Casablanca is widely regarded as the highest form of this, energizing the United States’ citizenry to join the war. In it, Rick begins as an isolationist, preferring to drink and play chess alone, declaring he “stick[s] [his] neck out for nobody,” which in turn is replied as “a wise foreign policy.” But by the end of the film, he guns down a Nazi Major, and helps the resistance leader escape with his own true love. The high artfulness of it though, is that you don’t notice you are being gently coaxed into the dutiful patriotism of going to war, because it’s woven neatly into stories of love and loss, and the velvety throes of self-worship. Remember the Duck and Cover film of 1951, featuring a cartoon of Bert the Turtle tactfully dropping inside his shell when a bomb goes off. Or any of the innumerable films throughout the Cold War that painted the human embodiment of American values succeeding above the gnarled corruption of the Soviet Union.
Cuck Philosophy’s video, “Neoliberalism, World Music, and Corporate Aesthetics,” describes a West void of identity after the end of the Cold War, scrambling like a trust fund teenager trying to find what he’s actually good at, his pimples erupting like snow-capped mountains, his fortune already splayed out in front of him, maids and servants doing everything for him. In this quest, is something inevitable—certain corners of the popular culture returning to some putrid resemblance of the past, something so desperate to look authentic and worldly. As far music, there’s no longer the necessity of the Sex Pistols or Black Sabbath, no chorus of rebellion that in turn find its meaning. Iron Maiden’s “Two Minutes to Midnight” was about the Doomsday Clock during the Cold War that reached that same grim hour, edging towards certain global annihilation. (With the triumphant collision of climate change and the revival of the arms race, the Clock has since returned to this same time.) But with no culturally ubiquitous fear of some ghoulish ungodly people, ours was an “aesthetics of a return to ‘simplicity’ and ‘purity’ represented by third world countries,” as described by Cuck Philosophy. The video tells of ethnomusicologist Hugo Zemp, who recorded a lullaby by a woman named Afunakwa, from the Solomon Islands near Papua New Guinea, which in turn was released by fusion band Deep Forest, and then on to many other corporate commercials. Through the meandering desperations to come across as indigenously literate, the song became known as a Pygmy melody, obviously a gross misrepresentation of where it actually came from.
In Cold War, Wiktor’s initial group who sing and dance traditional Polish songs are then instructed to integrate songs praising their country’s love of Stalin, the renegotiated purpose and identity now a stalwart propaganda. But later, Wiktor has his own identity crisis. After fleeing, and living in Paris for years, he tries to return to Poland to chase after his love, Zula. In what is presumed the Polish embassy in Paris, he is reminded he is neither Polish nor French. Frankly, they tell him, he doesn’t exist. In Paris, he plays piano numbers in the smoke-whipped amour of Parisian jazz clubs, caressing neatly into the finally realized fantasy of falling in love with a beautiful French poet, Juliette—to some of our sentimental prejudices, this achieves the highest romance, so much a cliché it somehow becomes reasonable. But writer-director Pawel Pawilowski only acknowledges their relationship. It’s mentioned, but we barely see Wiktor and his French lover together. It’s a relationship that would have been enough to fill three Godard films, or any other heavily stylized piece of masturbatory nostalgia. It’s something the immigration delegate, or ambassador, asks Wiktor: why would you want to leave? But love is the corruptive madness that would rather ruin us all than let us be together. Once, after getting broken up with, I drove through a snowstorm with broken windows rolled halfway down and no heater for seventeen hours to watch her dance in a ballet, only to be rejected again, finally driving home in the flaccid pain and dehydration, my only food being old wind-scabbed cookies from a rest stop vending machine. It’s horrible, and yet, everyone has a similar story. It connects us. We occasionally divulge these stories with one another for a bit of comically disguised sympathy; or rather, like old men bragging about the size of a fish they once caught, the most of us crow on and on with one another about who acted the stupidest amidst the intoxicated blur of heartbreak. Wiktor on the other hand, took it a step further, returning to Poland and thus being sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor at a prison camp. We don’t see much of the camp, but we nevertheless ask ourselves, more than viewers, the same: why did you leave Paris? You left a world of maple, lace-veiled tits, the velveteen ennui saturated in the heart of cosmopolitan magnetism, and traded it for a bomb-blasted hellworld, everything gross and stupid wrapped in wreaths of barbed wire.
Zula, sitting on Wiktor’s lap at the prison camp’s visiting room, as they kiss and cry in each other’s arms, remarked the rhetorically blunt question: what have we done? She was never really smitten with the overly-confident pretension of Paris. And he couldn’t live there without her. But surely, anything was better than this—his broken and swollen fingers zigzagging their way to resemble a far worse condition than the rickety men singing their best in the beginning of the film.
In their own way, Wiktor and Zula were resistance fighters, pushing back against state tyranny. But the music Zula made in Paris, with Wiktor, wasn’t her music. She called them bastard songs, without a fatherland she loved. At its simplest, Pawel Pawlikowski described Cold War as an intimate story told in a big world—an old fashioned love story where it was possible to look across the room and fall in love. We don’t have that opportunity today, he continued, because we’ve been playing an endless game of Hot or Not on our phones, staring down into oblivion as true love may be walking right by our real-life gaze. We’ve lost our own identities, searching in the blaze of madness for something to love. Cold War, maybe, is about it being right there all along.