Socialists dismiss liberal democracy as false consciousness, but no one falsifies consciousness like a socialist. Socialist history is false history, the march of workers who want to work harder. Socialist economics is false economics, where the numbers never add up, but it’s always someone else’s fault. Socialist art is false art, because it is always propaganda.
The socialist individual begins as an impossible fiction, and ends as an enemy of the state, because the aim of socialism is to subordinate individual desires to collective duties. This corruption of human relationships — denouncing your parents, spying on your wife, fearing your children — is not an accident, but an operating principle. For there can be no ‘new man’ or ‘new’ woman’, no great leaping forward, without the changing of minds. The forcing of history means the forcing of consciousness. A hundred years ago, it meant telling people to remember the principles of dialectical materialism. Today, it means telling them to forget the atrocities that followed so that they can be repeated.
Nothing changes a mind like love. Marx, a typical Victorian bourgeois down to his affairs with the servants, identified the nuclear family as the unit of capitalist production. As often is the case, Marx was half right. The selfishness of lovers, their completeness and private language, is a seed of sedition; the family its outgrowth, breeding affections stronger than the iron laws of history. The couple is the dialectic at the heart of life, and that makes the love bond the enemy of socialism.
Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War is a love story that begins in Soviet-controlled Poland, crosses into the free world and back, and ends in tragedy. Pawlikowski (Ida) has been nominated as Best Director in this year’s Oscars, and Cold War as Best Foreign Film. The Oscars are as fixed by political preference as a Soviet tractor race, but if there is any justice, Pawlikowski and Cold War will win. The same goes for Cold War’s third nomination, for Lukazs Zal’s cinematography. That Cold War’s stars, Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot, and its musical director Martin Masecki, have all not been nominated tells us much about the calculations of the capitalist running dogs in Hollywood.
In 1949, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is part of a team traversing the frozen Polish countryside, making field recordings of folk songs. Wiktor is a cog in the Party’s cultural machine, a rehearsal pianist at a music school established in a war-damaged country house, now ‘nationalized’ as a school for mock-authentic folk song and dance. At the time, the communists believed that superiority in the polka was as important as parity in jet fighters, for the same reasons that the Chinese government runs forcing houses for prepubescent gymnasts. Nothing is sacred to atheists.
Wiktor falls in love with Zula (Joanna Kulig), a young singer. The human voice is her means of production, just as the piano is his. But the workers’ state, represented by the school’s supervisor, Lech (Borys Szyc), controls them both. Lech gives the socialist realist equivalent of Irene Cara’s spiel at the start of Fame, an analysis which any Marxist or actor will endorse: ‘Fame costs, and here’s where you start paying.’
Socialist fame is manufactured, an endless tour of Soviet satellite capitals, but Wiktor and Zula can still pay the cost, even when they escape to the other side of the Manichean world, and become a jazz pianist and singer in Paris. Prisoners in the East, they become strangers in the West — alienated by commerce, to use another Marxist formulation. The 19th century discovered that the true artist is a stranger in society; the 20th century crushed the true and the real in the name of the people. This is a sad film, and a true.
The contrast between the democratic reality of jazz and the dictatorial lie of ‘socialist music’ lay at the heart of Adorno’s loathing of America. This was fatuous then, and it remains fatuous now to claim that capitalism and communism, as two sides of the same historical coin, were then sides of equal value. As Cold War shows, jazz is the sound of freedom, of the workers losing their chains; folk dances choreographed by the Party are a spectacle of lies and slavery. You hear the liberating power of music — perhaps the most powerful inner emigration of all, because it is shared — when Tomasz, running Zula through her vocal exercises in the state academy, extends an arpeggio to the major seventh and the ninth and then, as her voice catches the opening out of his harmonies, guides her back down to the tonic in a hint of George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘I Loves You, Porgy.’
But freedom is a fearful burden. Are the lovers doomed because Zula informs on Tomasz to Lech, or because Tomasz is too willing to play the Western game? Or is it that their love was born in language, musical and Polish? The visual language of Cold War is steely and hard, but Kulig, a straight talker amid the corruption of language, gleams amid the black and white. Lukazs Zal’s cinematography, fluid and luminous like mercury, synchronizes the camera with Zula’s revolt into song and dance; the reality of Cold War is painfully present, yet its visual techniques are, like its subject matter, 20th century. Distance makes for poignancy; we recall the good intentions of socialism in black & white, but we feel the technicolor impulse to meaning and justice, even in its absence. Martin Masecki’s arrangements, melding Polish folk and American jazz in the manner that eludes the lovers in real life, are superb too. But what really counts in Cold War is the silence, and not just in the hints and shrugs by which people must communicate in a police state.
After the cacophonous falsity of official folk music and corrupt language, the absence of noise is raw on our ears, as painful as the absent touch of the beloved. Silence is the true music — the soul of privacy and truth. Cold War, part-eulogy, part-tragedy, is a true work of art. See it on the big screen, not on your phone.
Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.