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Did Bach Lose the Cold War?

Still from “Cold War.”

Can the credits wreck a film?  I’m not talking about choking on a popcorn kernel when you see that the best boy happens to be the same guy who ran off with your wife. The problem can be far more serious than that: after the story has been told in image and sound, some directors (or, probably more often, producers) cannot resist the urge to indulge in one final bit of manipulation. They do this through sound, at last freed from the demands put on the score by the moving images themselves.

It is not the last thing we see, but the last thing we hear that can crucially mold—and distort—our reaction to a movie, and that something is often the musical overlay to the catalog of “creatives,” technicians, production companies, copyrighted songs, locations, and film boards.

In action flicks and comedies, visual snippets and surprises are sometimes worked into the credits, as in the bonus bits in Brad Bird’s Incredibles diptych or in the outtakes of Jackie Chan’s stunts gone wrong. But these value-added novelties do not skew the effect of what has previously happened onscreen. They’re just plain fun, and fully in keeping with what we’ve seen and heard in the movie proper, even when, for example, an actor or martial arts master breaks a bone and/or character.

In the greatest of all credit sequence codas, Peter Sellars’ brilliant bout with the giggles in Being There is not a self-indulgent demonstration of how difficult it must have been to remain in character as the idiot prophet, Chauncey Gardiner: the succession of “unsuccessful” attempts culminating in a masterful, partly improvised complete take does not puncture the illusion of the film. In lifting the veil on Sellars’s comic craft, these life-affirming flubs do not mock our own suspension of disbelief or that of the credulous characters in the film’s story, but simultaneously question and celebrate both.

The credit sequence of Cold War, which brought Pawel Pawlikowski the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, takes itself far too seriously to provide such an epiphany. Instead Pawlikowski, one of our time’s greatest filmmakers, plunges his tempestuous Iron Curtain romance into bathos. The crystalline notes played all-too-carefully on an unseen Steinway undermine much of the compelling authenticity that his eighty-five-minute epic had admirably accrued. These credits kill. That they do is ironic, given that the film is not just about love but about music. It’s doubly ironic that the fatal strains are the work of Johann Sebastian Bach—the Aria from his Goldberg Variations in the unmistakable anti-interpretation of Glenn Gould.

Until this last lethal incursion, all the music in Cold War comes from within the world of the film—it is recorded, played, transcribed, arranged, and/or performed by the characters on screen, and therefore heard by them, too. Pawlikowski adopted the same approach to cinematic sound in Ida, which rightly garnered the 2015 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Set in 1962, that movie follows a young woman, who, as she is about to become a Catholic nun, discovers she is Jewish, orphaned as a baby in the Holocaust. The film is about silence informed by music. In the final scene of Ida, just before the credits, Pawlikowski displaces the score from the characters’ space when he introduces an arrangement of Bach’s plaintive chorale prelude for organ, Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (I call to you, Lord Jesus Christ / I pray, hear my lamentation). It is only the audience who hears this cry from the depths. This musical shift makes for a bold and obvious rupture in the continuity of the soundtrack, and while the performance of the famous piece by Alfred Brendel is too precious, the film’s profundity is not sapped. Yet it does risk cliché.

As if reflexively reverting to the same trick in his latest film, Pawlikowski’s kindred use of Bach in the Cold War credits might be heard at first to be appropriate enough to his latest film’s content, since the protagonist is himself a pianist of enviable and unlikely range and resourcefulness. The movie sprawls across two post-War-World-II decades and their musical styles, from rural Poland to Berlin to Paris to Dubrovnik, and from ethnic song and dance, to Chopin, to jazz, finally fleeing its own milieu to the transcendence of Bach.

The story begins in the winter of 1947. It is not only the war that is cold, but the elements too. Snow is heavy on the ground, the surroundings portrayed with bleak beauty by the stark and static black-and-white cinematography set in the narrower “academy” frame—the aspect ratio that is closer to a square than the widescreen format of modern cinema. In this more classical proportion it is if there is not room enough on the margins of the image for an added soundtrack of non-contemporaneous, omniscient musical commentary.

In Cold War Wiktor (the rather phlegmatic Tomasz Kot) is the musical director for a pseudo-ethnographic initiative, one closely curated towards political ends by the Polish state. Wiktor and a female colleague Irena (portrayed with straight-backed rigor by Agata Kulesza) tour the frozen countryside recording and auditioning musicians for an elite ensemble that will represent the new national spirit in traditional medleys performed in Wiktor’s artistic arrangements—that is, plucked from their roots and made to serve the prevailing ideology. Some of these tunes are heard in their raw, unprettified, and immensely powerful form in the riveting opening minutes of the film. In this stretch of quasi-documentary material we see and hear peasants with nasal, sometimes cracking voices performing melodies as twisted and wise as the faces of the singers. The cataclysm of war has not stamped out native song.

Whereas Wiktor seems indifferent to politics and even artistic integrity, Irena is firmly committed to authentic Polish music and resists communist distortions and theatricality.  She soon disappears from the film.

Even packaged for the concert hall and for tours across Poland and to other Soviet-bloc states, the music retains its gristly texture and salty truth. Yet the ensemble members must match the fair-haired, pigtailed image favored by the regime, whose machinations are represented by the calmly officious and ruthless Lech (Borsy Syzc).

Among those trying for a place in the ensemble is the gorgeous and troubled Zula, played by Joanna Kulig, a seductively volatile and disarming screen presence and a gripping singer with a hollow, haunting voice. Her blond hair and round face accord with the required stereotype, unlike the features of another woman who is too dark. But Zula is not a rustic; she’s a louche modern with uncanny musical gifts and preternatural powers of performance: the honesty of sorrow of her singing is devastating. Just before the audition she’s not even sure what she’ll sing; while waiting in the corridor, she latches onto a fellow aspirant’s authentic folk tune by singing in harmony with it. For her solo when asked to do more by Wiktor, Zula tosses off something she picked from a movie she’s seen. Wiktor falls for her immediately, both her sound and image. The fiery romance is ignited and can’t be quelled by the cold.

Zula is a musical chameleon and so is Wiktor.  Her talents for camouflage and adaptation extend from gussied-up ethnic choruses and high-stepping dance numbers to a mournful French version of a traditional Polish ballad. Equally as adept, Wiktor can accompany and conduct the state-sponsored nationalistic fodder, but also fly with his fingers through the realms of high art (Chopin), and play American jazz standards like Night and Day in Paris clubs. Where the celluloid surface is all black the music chromatic in every sense.

The central song, Dwa Serduszka (Two Hearts) serves as more than simply leitmotiv but is an organizing principle around which the story coheres: it’s done solo, in elaborate choral garlands, and in French translation as a smoky 50s jazz version laid down on shellac. The folksy lyrics are laden with doom: “My mother warned me not to fall in love with the boy / But I will hold him tight and love him till I die.” The tune is minor and mournful, with a restive refrain that evokes the geographic sweep of the lover’s tale.

In its last minutes, the film retreats from song and dance: the film and its figures seek stillness in the landscape. Out of this silence comes the Goldberg aria.

These variations, as one-offs and in aggregate, have been deployed in soundtracks over the last couple of decades with a frequency surpassing even that of the infamous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. They have served as the musical embodiment of Hannibal Lecter’s perversely rational sadism in Silence of the Lambs. In Hoover (2011) the Goldberg voices doggedly follow one another in exact canonic imitation, like the unhinged F.B.I. director tailing his enemies. Bach surveils Hoover’s romantic life, too, as when another variation is heard while the malevolent crimefighter G-mansplains the efficient, bureaucratic beauty of the Dewey Decimal System to the object of his desire on a sort of date to the Library of Congress. Conceived as an encyclopedic collection of virtuosic trickery, exuberant erudition and searching excursions into the shadows of melancholy, the Goldberg Variations have become cinema’s sonic sign of artful cruelty—play turned to pathology.

Surprisingly, the excessively delicate pianism heard at the close of Cold War seems even more heavy-handed than when glossing the moods of maniacs in these other movies. Gould’s performance is so careful and calculating that the gracious Goldberg aria is dissected and, once our lovers have exited the frame, reformed into something it is not and cannot be. Bach’s musical miniature is distorted into a vessel that the filmmakers of Cold War hope will be large enough to hold all the tears in the world—or at least those shed in the movie theatre as the credits continue to roll. In the retrospect of those rolling names—in hind-sound, as it were—Cold War collapses into melodrama.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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