PTSD and Fatalité Intérieure: Pawel Pawlikowski’s ‘Cold War’

Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland 2018).

Reviewed by Prof. Robert Abrams, Weill Cornell College, New York.

Cold War is a film set mostly in Poland in the Communist era from 1949 to the 1960s.  The majority of scenes are shot under a grim, steel-grey sky, befitting the spirit-crushing oppression that prevailed in that time and place. But the very dullness of life in post-war Poland makes the spirited and danger-seeking central character, Zula (Joanna Kulig), stand out all the more. Zulia is a young singing star in the making, with an angelic face and a brilliant voice that ranges from softly moving to inspirationally full-throated. But Zulia has a past; without much detail it is made clear that she has been the victim of sexual abuse by her father when a child.

How this fact affects her life is the personal part of the story. Zula is a dazzling performer, but off-stage she is on a circuitous route to destruction. She falls deeply in love with her handsome music coach, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), but despite her passionate attraction to this man, she seems incapable of feeling any satisfaction in love without contamination by bursts of rage, alcoholism and an agonizing ambivalence. As such, the film is a devastating portrayal of the consequences of early sexual abuse, a primer in how to derail the future life of a child. The message is that when one’s first love has been an abusive parent, the child’s repressed anger and guilt are then set up to reappear again and again in adult life, concentrated specifically in the domain of love; and the more intense the later love relationship, the greater the trend toward turmoil and destruction. Wiktor, himself ardent and emotional, does not give up on Zula, but he becomes something of an incidental character in her internal struggles.

But this is not just a film about child abuse and PTSD.  In the background the viewer is subjected to the crass behavior that authoritarian regimes everywhere seem to foster. Cynicism and back-biting are the order of the day. One singing coach refuses to abandon her program of pure Polish folk music, beautiful old songs that speak to the heart, in exchange for “uplifting” martial music, paeans to the proletariat and most gallingly, to Josef Stalin. Predictably, the coach Wiktor is marginalized (or worse) for speaking out. Centuries-old folk art has been exploited, downgraded really, in the service of presenting Poland to the world as a socialist paradise.

In contrast to the drab banality of life in Poland are scenes of the post-War West, Paris and the non-communist sectors of Berlin, both places at this time busily throwing off the memories of war and newly alive with American jazz and the exuberance of freedom reborn. The East-West contrast could not be starker. But one still has a sense of foreboding about the future manifestations of PTSD writ large, this time stemming from the horrors of war, and now on an international scale. There must be many Zulas who survived the trauma of war.

Zula herself is not without insight, and toward the end she makes a determined attempt to curtail her descent into chaos by making a formal commitment to her hitherto impossible relationship. She still cannot make sense of the effects of early abuse; consequently the ethos that surrounds her, whether Communist or capitalist, could never make a difference. Zula and Wiktor have been cycling from rapturous love to bitter futility. The viewer can only hope that fatalité intérieure may not, after all, be completely determinative.


Robert Abrams, M.D., is a graduate of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and completed residency training in psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. He is currently Professor of Psychiatry in Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and attending psychiatrist in the Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine, with an outpatient and consulting practice in geriatric psychiatry at the Wright Center on Aging. He has published numerous research and review articles on depression and aging, personality disorders in the elderly, suicide, elder abuse and the humanities.

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