Individualism as Hysteria

Cold War (2018) 15, 88mins, written and directed by Paweł Pawlikowski, with Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc

A mash up of Sergei Eisenstein and David Lean in his icy incarnation (Dr Zhivago), Cold War is really two films, reflecting its two locations, East and West, its two storylines, political and romantic and its two messages: individualism as political metaphor and individualism as hysteria.

In today’s Guardian (online) there is an article by Larry Elliott, Economics Editor, kind of about economics but really making sweeping generalisations about the lack of any alternative narrative regarding the 2008 banking crash (the 10th anniversary of the destruction of Lehmann Bros is shortly to be celebrated or lamented) apart from the one which really took hold throughout the world: that the problem wasn’t the banks’ financial incontinence, rather it was profligate governments who everywhere spent too much. Thus austerity economics; thus rampaging inequality; thus the rise of nationalism and rage and… you know, all the usual stuff.

His point is that when such earth shattering events occurred in earlier times, there were, cometh the hour, cometh the man (and woman), philosophers who stepped forward with some kind of road map. For better or worse. He mentions Adam Smith, whose death coincided with the French Revolution (coincidentally), Marx who needs no introduction, Keynes, associated, of course, with the Great Depression of the 1930s, Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, architects of a framework for the destructive efforts of Thatcher and Reagan; whatever the problem someone somewhere had an answer. Or at least was asking the right (or wrong) questions. Or any questions.

So, Cold War. It’s certainly asking some questions. The question is, are they the right questions, and does the film give any answers? Or is this even the question?

Eisenstein: he used non-actors, people off the street, in his films about events which affected the general populace. Cold War begins in post-war ravaged, communist Poland, with ostensibly ordinary people singing folk songs. It is very moving and effective. And folk songs are, no matter how hard you try, political in a fundamental way. Revolution and rebellion are going to have a musical dimension. Singing is defiance. Singing is solidarity. But folk singing can also have an ugly, nationalistic, backward looking, dangerously revanchist dimension. It isn’t modern. It isn’t the acceptable face of a society going places. Communist societies had a complex relationship with folk art. Initially the film seems to be taking this somewhere interesting.

On to David Lean; who, if he stood for anything, stood for the idea that vast sociological, political, economic upheavals, revolutions, wars, you name it, could be encapsulated by one, or maybe two characters, giants certainly, brands possibly, marque names most definitely, lending their mythic status to a procession of actors, Omar Sharif, Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness (who reprised his performance in Star Wars), story, role, actor all becoming mixed up in a kind of weird pop culture masquerading as a world view, ie. big budget films have something important to say in the midst of romantic blancmange.

It’s fun to think of History as a continuous journey marked by points of interest for the traveller. Eric Hobsbawm, the famous left-leaning Historian, divided the recent past thus: the Long Nineteenth Century, from the French Revolution to the outbreak of the First World War, and the Short Twentieth Century, ending at the fall of the Berlin Wall. Cold War deals with that interesting moment just after the Second World War but before the the end of the Soviet Union, when Eisenstein was definitely in decline (he had sadly died) and David Lean in his ascendancy. Friedman and Hayek, Thatcher and Reagan were yet to deal the death blow to a political idea but all the elements were in place. The cult of the individual was set to have its day. As Margaret Thatcher opined: there is no such thing as society, just perfect individuals acting perfectly in a perfect market (I made that last bit up).

Say what you like about David Lean, his characters at least give the impression that they are engaging with the larger issues of their time, they are political actors in the great drama of life, that there is a hint, somewhere, that there is something larger than their own struggles at stake, that the flapping of their tiny wings will engender tornadoes.

The lovers in Cold War, in contrast, seem utterly removed from what is happening all around. They are self-absorbed to an extent which is remarkable. There is no cause for their suffering but themselves which is, I suppose, a natural corollary of the idea that a person is defined by the limits imposed by their own skin, that the only thing that can really be depended on are your feelings. The film seems to suggest that we enjoy nothing so much as watching others indulge in an extravaganza of intense emotion, divorced from any kind of thoughtful interaction with the world, social, political or artistic, no matter that this inner opera tells us nothing important about the events occurring all around, events with which we are still concerned now, even more urgently if that can be possible. I guess what I’m really saying is that Cold War promises much but delivers rather little.

Paul Corcoran