The Body Politics of a Polish Melodrama: Cold War (2018)

Amarabati Bhattacharyya
Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts
Symbiosis International (Deemed University)


In film theory, melodrama has been recognized as a dominant mode of organizing the cinematic aesthetic, especially in the context of Hollywood cinema. However, this focus on Hollywood films has resulted in ignoring the influence of melodrama on other national cinemas – such as the Polish national cinema. Polish filmmakers have been historically acclaimed for their realist or political works, hence confining the cinematic produce of Poland to one specific niche. This paper foregrounds the melodramatic cliché of subjecting the female character to sustained suffering and is interested in employing the socio-political framework of ‘body politics’ to understand female subjugation that is so central to a melodrama. Body politics refers to state control over its subjects’ bodies. The striking feature of a melodrama is its capacity to stimulate visceral reactions in its audiences through subjecting the bodies of the characters on screen to similar experiences. This paper aims to closely read and analyze the Polish melodrama Cold War (2018), directed by Pawel Pawlikowski and attempts to understand the manifold ways in which the body of the female protagonist is monitored, disciplined and controlled, leading to her overall doomed portrayal.

Keywords: melodrama, Polish cinema, body politics, female protagonist, Cold War


Ever since its inception, filmmaking and film watching alike, have been physically immersive experiences – the creators and the audiences of cinema are both engaged in capturing and consuming movement, while directly engaging in movement themselves. In that sense, while cinema has been considered a physical experience, melodrama, in particular, has been perceived as an emotional experience. Emotions are displayed and evoked through themes such as romance or the failure of it, familial bonds or the lack of it, or the various highs and lows of daily life. Melodrama portrays the behavioral patterns of people in various conundrums, and in turn reflects their inner emotions. Melodrama, therefore, focuses directly on people and their deep interactions with themselves, and each other. Thus, melodrama inherently operates out of the human body – as the subject of all of these myriad processes, existing in a shared space with other bodies. Inevitably, melodrama then, has to politicize the body, both in the private and public spheres of existence, in order for it to become an emotional, reactionary and sensory experience. 

Melodrama has been one of the most popular genres for centuries now; however, when referring to melodrama, the common audience or critique usually highlights Hollywood films (Hayward, 2000). East-Asian, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, and Polish cinema, among others, are often highlighted for their ‘art-house’ films – categorized under the non-mainstream, obscure genres of film, distinguished from melodrama. (Hayward, 2000). This research is primarily interested in shifting the focus from Hollywood in order to inspect and perceive the genre of melodrama in the context of Polish cinema. This research paper begins by providing a brief historical and contextual account of Polish cinema, and defining the filmic genre of melodrama and the socio-political concept of body politics (to subsequently locate the latter within the former). Further, it explores this amalgam of ‘melodrama-body politics’ through the Polish film Cold War (2018) by Pawel Pawlikowski. 

Summary of Cold War (2018)

The film revolves around the two protagonists Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot); and their doomed love affair. The two meet at Wiktor’s folk-music ensemble set, where Zula comes to audition for a part. Wiktor is instantaneously drawn towards Zula. The narrative and plot follow their extremely turbulent relationship and their battle against the Soviet-controlled Polish state that pulls them apart episodically, coupled with their personal anxieties and traumas that prevent them from uniting. The film is located in 1949 Poland, immediately after the Second World War (WWII), and at the beginning of the Cold War. This was the most challenging period in Polish history when the Polish People’s Republic established by Communist Polish Workers Party was the nucleus of Stalinist oppression. This period was also characterized by the Polish struggle for freedom. The film is shot in congruence with the time, in “sterling black and white and the boxy Academy aspect ratio” (Laffly, 2018). It captures three landscapes – Poland, Germany, and Paris – in a way that is true to the time highlighting the remnants of the Second World War. The feeling of a certain ‘war aftermath’ lingers on throughout the film as it traverses these landscapes. It is an elliptical story that follows their highs and lows, juxtaposed with Poland’s own tumultuous journey, ending in a grim and staggering way – intertwining the cold, harsh, convoluted reality of the war that was arriving, and that of love itself.

The film, created in a semi-musical form, through its mesmerizing mise-en-scène and riveting dialogues, exalts its melodramatic essence. This paper examines this particular melodrama through body politics of the female body. Zula represents and embodies the tropes of victimhood, helplessness, and failure. Her character is molded through the ‘gaze’ of the male protagonist and the narrative is weaved around her ultimate defeat – her physical body and its inherent subjugation/subjectivation.

Cinema of Poland

The Polish nation has been producing films for a long time. While it is difficult to categorize Polish cinema as popular or commercial, it has been fairly celebrated in the realm of film festivals and type-casted as international cinema typically belonging to the abstract, art-house traditions, consumed by a limited audience (Haltof, 2008; Sosnowski, 1995). Filmmakers such as Krzysztof Kieślowski, Andrzej Wajda, Andrzej Żuławski, Jerzy Skolimowski as well as Roman Polański (who was early to establish himself in Hollywood) are all considered greats of Polish cinema and are held in high esteem by film scholars, film festivals and international audiences alike. Polish cinema is almost always taken into consideration within wider discourses of international cinema. However, akin to the filmic traditions emergent out of Asian nations (India, China, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan etc.) or possibly closer home, similar to the cinema of Russia – cinema of Poland has also historically been viewed as the “other” of Hollywood cinema (Haltof, 2008). The Soviet occupation of Poland and its communist rule left an indelible mark on Polish cinema. It can be argued that Polish cinema (as it is perceived in present time) was born out of the shackles of communism and has since dealt with questions surrounding the nation, freedom and the cultural reinvention of a Polish society.

Cinema of Poland can be segregated into four phases: 

  1. The nascent phases of discoveries and experimentations with cinema itself, in the early 1900s.
  2. Post-World War I phase where Polish cinema was thriving, mostly with adaptations of Polish literature. Films of this time were rooted in realism and were screened in other nations.
  3. Beginning of WWII wherein newer filmic styles surfaced – the films were colored with politics and identified as propaganda or anti-war films. This type was quintessential among nations like Poland, which had undergone the transformational effects of wars. For instance, Franciszka and Stefan Themerson’s Calling Mr. Smith (1943) was regarded as the first anti-Nazi film, showcasing a new avant-garde style of film making ( Contributor, n,d).
  4. The post WWII moment and the communist rule of Poland till 1989 which redefined Polish cinema. During this period, cinema was state-owned (Haltof, 2018). Under Stalinism, Polish cinema faced significant confinement and restriction along with the rest of Poland’s culture. (Haltof, 2000). This contextualization of Poland’s cinematic history is highlighted to understand the underpinnings of Pawlikowski’s Cold War and its narrative.

However, despite the stringent Soviet control, some filmmakers including Polanski, Kieslowski and Wajda began what was known as the ‘Polish Film School’ movement. By the 1980s, this movement had produced iconic Polish films. The predominant theme in these movies encompassed the Polish experience – the Polish predicament under communism. Polish cinematic history does not categorically include a ‘new wave’ period, in its definitional sense, wherein filmmakers experiment with new genres and techniques of film-making (Ronduda and Piwowarska, 2008). While socio-political upheavals lingered as the dominant theme of Polish films, it can be acknowledged that starting from the 1980s, filmmakers like Polanski (Knife In The Water, Rosemary’s Baby, Tess), Kieslowski (The Double Life of Veronique, No End, A Short Film About Love) and Pawlikowski (Cold War, Ida) had begun to create films about love, loss, desire, infidelity, crime, psychosis and the like – not entirely surpassing the theme of the nation but rather, diversifying the cinematic niche of Poland to ‘realist melodramas’. The period also welcomed female filmmakers like Agnieszka Holland, Dorota Kędzierzawska, Barbara Sass, who alongside the male auteurs began to create sentimental cinema on life, love, heartbreak, sex, womanhood, femininity and the endless suffering and plight of women – all common to the melodrama.

Theory of Melodrama

The earliest instances of melodrama as a form of art can be traced back to the morality plays of the medieval period in the French and English dramas and novels, which proliferated into epic dramas, operas and other forms of entertainment as time passed (Hayward, 2000, p.13). In the 18th and 19th centuries, melodrama was gradually incorporated as a filmic genre, initially categorized as a sub-genre of drama. From the 1950s onwards, melodrama became one of the most popular genres of film – referred to as ‘weepies’, ‘tearjerkers’ and ‘women’s films.’ Some of the greatest filmmakers of melodrama include Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows), Vincente Minelli (The Bad and the Beautiful), George Cukor (The Women), and Michael Curtiz (Mildred Pierce) (Hayward, 2000, p. 218). The term ‘melodrama’ comes from Greek words for ‘song and drama.’ However, the definition of the term melodrama raises a rather perplexing question. 

There exist a multitude of literature and contextual frameworks that define melodrama, both as a genre and a mode. There has been a plethora of discourse and deliberation on the meaning of melodrama. There is general consensus amongst film theorists and scholars with regards to the ambiguity of ‘melodrama’ – the fact that there is no singular defining element that could be ascribed to melodrama. Therefore, its identification is not unitary and rigid but discursive and manifold. Melodrama is studied through several theoretical perspectives: socio-political, cultural as well as psychosocial; it also finds itself in the realms of gender theory, feminist critique, marxist critique among others. The seminal work of theorists such as Susan Hayward, Ben Singer, and Laura Mulvey will be utilized for the purpose of theorizing melodrama. Although, the meanings of melodrama remain fragmented – the aspect of emotion is consistently emphasized upon, across all four aforementioned authors and beyond, while studying melodrama. 

Melodrama departs from the ‘logic of action’ and operates on the ‘logic of emotion’ – the explicit and extravagant emotions that are often subdued in realist cinema (Hayward, 2000). While realism depicts the exactness of life, melodrama depicts the excess of life: the internal and external symptoms of living itself. The technique of the film becomes excessively apparent in a melodrama, as opposed to realism, wherein the content is prioritized over the technique. Melodrama achieves depth through such excessiveness. For Thomas Elsaesser the “mise-en-scène becomes a repository of meanings” through which the excess of melodrama is created (Elsaesser, 1987, as cited in Gledhill, 1987, p. 52). Since the 1930s and 40s, the term ‘excess’ has also been significant in defining melodrama (Singer, 2001).

Melodrama represents the modern experience, and in turn the sensory and sensational experience (Singer, 2001). Modernism vis-à-vis modernity intertwines with melodrama in uncovering and “de-centering” social constructs and the subjects of society – which results in ideological contradictions and moral confrontations.  Melodrama, then, exists in the intersection of the social, political and commercial. It appeals not only to an audience, but also to a consumer/customer – in congruence with the phenomena of capitalism. As Hayward (2000) suggests, melodrama operates as a by-product of capitalism, reproducing the constructs set by it while simultaneously countering it with a certain reflexive portrayal of the conflict it creates, one that is rooted in class, gender and sexual differences. Since, capitalism and patriarchy are ideologies that function interconnectedly in catering to the desires of men while suppressing that of women – melodrama becomes a mesh of compliance as well as subversion – which is unequivocally reflected in Cold War via portraying Zula and Wiktor as transgressive yet succumbing subjects of the Polish state, and its apparatuses.

Most melodramas invest entirely on the lives of women, which is why it is so commonly synonymous to a ‘woman’s film’ (Hayward, 2000; Gledhill, 1987; Singer, 2001). Melodrama attempts to tell the story of a woman by giving her a platform for expression and lamentation of her social realities. In this light melodrama is subversive, it allows for the female audience to relate/identify with the struggles of the protagonist. It is also subversive in the sense that it domesticates the male character (since melodrama is rooted in covering family dynamics) – the male patriarch finds himself regulated by the rules of the domestic sphere, cast away from his usual public sphere, which is shown in limited scope in a melodrama. As Hayward (2000) suggests, “In this way he becomes less male and, in the process, more feminized. And this is undoubtedly one of the reasons why the melodrama appeals to the female spectator” (p. 217). Regardless of melodrama’s attempt at subversion to counter patriarchy, and alleviate the oppressions endured by women, it continues to subjugate women. The inner desires of the female character that might be introduced at the start of the film are unfailingly suppressed across its length and ultimately dashed. The desires of the female character that the narrative actively represses in accordance with the patriarchal atmosphere in which she lives – emanates through the film’s mise-en-scène – “a surplus of objects and interior decor”. (p. 215) The mise-en-scène is designed around the female character and exhibits her tacit desires by locating her in the midst of an excess. Hayward then addresses melodrama as masochistic (p.218), since the hope for the female character to attain satisfaction is only built to the point where it is completely destroyed. Therefore, melodrama ensures the downfall of the female character – subjecting her to an infinite victimization, positioning her in the classic ‘damsel-in-distress’ trope, and her every attempt to overcome her suppression is vilified and defeated. Melodrama also actively caters to the male gaze – sexualizing the female body to gratify the male desires (Mulvey, 1999). Melodrama, in what Williams (1991, p. 3) refers to as the “body genre” subjects the on-screen female body to a “gross display” – to an excessive extent that intends to gratify both patriarchy and capitalism – rendering the melodramatic genre “exciting”, and “sensational.” Therefore, this archetypal supervision, regulation, disciplining and sometimes direct assailment of the female body in a melodrama coincides with the socio-political theorization of body politics.

Theory of Body Politics

‘Body politics’ can be defined as the functioning of power structures through and on the human body. The various institutions functioning within a society directly target the body and render it “docile” – birthing a (horizontal) hierarchy of oppression, in accordance to which the body is politicized and thus, subjugated (Foucault, 1977). Armstrong (n.d.) argues that the states’ “disciplinary practices subject bodily activities [of its subjects] to a process of constant surveillance and examination that enables a continuous and pervasive control of individual conduct.” (p. 1) In this hierarchy, women have historically been imprisoned in the lower seat of the power politics see-saw.

Cinema, as an expression of the cultural institution of society, exercises body politics to recreate the realities of a disparate society. Cinema also, as an expression of the media, contributes to the social construction of gender – its normative roles and stereotypes. It is through a systematic suppression of the woman’s body that cinema reflects the realities of society. It is through a systematic suppression of the woman’s body, and through the construction of women as the “other” – subordinate and inferior sex, that cinema reflects the realities of society. Sex and sexuality form an integral part of body politics (Foucault, 1977); it is through the sexualization and objectification of the woman’s body that gender roles are strengthened and the states’ hierarchical way of functioning is sustained. The state controls, manipulates and later abuses, especially the female body to ensure its obedience to the overarching and latent structures of society that serve to maintain the twin oppressions of capitalism and patriarchy. By sanction of the state, the female body is both the ‘weaker’ as well as the ‘labouring’ body, creating an inescapable body politic.

This paper argues that the woman’s body bears the brunt of body politics in melodrama. An example of this is the famed Roman Polanski horror-melodrama, Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The film’s entire narrative and technique viscously toils towards disciplining and suppressing the body of Rosemary. Already plagued by an extremely hetero-normative marriage, Rosemary is raped by her husband after he drugs her into sleep. Her husband joins a satanic cult, and desires to sacrifice their child to their Satan worshipping neighbors. Rosemary struggles in vain till the end of the film, to save herself and escape from what seems to be an inevitable ploy for her damnation. At the end, she loses her child to the Satan worshippers. Rosemary’s body is the sole site of subjugation here. The rape is justified under marital grounds, furthering Rosemary’s silent failures. The rape being the ultimate attack on the body is however, not the last. Her body is under constant assailment, and especially during her labyrinthine pregnancy, her health progressively deteriorates – she loses weight and hair, looks sicker and weaker by the day. In Foucauldian terms, Rosemary’s body is made docile enough for her to submit to the patriarchal society that aims to seize women’s autonomy over their own bodies. The film represents a classic melodramatic approach: the female character is given several fighting attempts to achieve freedom, as Rosemary’s inner emotions simmer underneath, but ultimately crushed. 

The constant attack on Rosemary’s body evokes a visceral reaction within the audiences consuming the film. The female audience is bound to seethe in a similar instinctive physical sensation, leading to emotional responses of rage, disgust or despair. A deep visceral feeling remains a salient characteristic of a melodrama and it is achieved through baring the female body out to unstoppable violence (Williams, 1991; Singer, 2001). In body politics, the state enforces this violence.

Analysis of Cold War (2018) through the lens of Body Politics

In this 2018 film, Pawel Pawlikowski crafts an ethereal sensory experience. The film utilizes short takes and rapid cutting abundantly to provoke its volatile and turbulent narrative centered on two doomed lovers. The cuts are extremely smooth and each shot is delicately placed after one another creating an intense visceral feeling. Apart from the dramatic camera movements, the music of the film (both diegetic and nondiegetic) catalyses its melodramatic nature. The entire film is designed around musical leitmotifs – a constant recurring musical phrase associated with a particular character or situation in the film. Pawlikowski admits to having made this film about his own parents, channeling and recreating their memories and his own childhood memories – and thus, the film possesses a certain nostalgia (Patton, 2018).

A Polish folk song starts playing while the opening credits roll, before the film has begun. The film begins as two mob characters appear looking directly into the camera and singing the song – a smooth transition. Within a few seconds, it cuts to a van where the male protagonist of the film, Wiktor, is revealed (seen holding a recorder). He is the creator/producer of a Polish folk ensemble along with his companion, Irena. In the opening sequence, they roam around and record folk songs sung by different Polish people. Set in 1949 during the emergence of the Cold War, the film is located in post-WWII Poland, which was under Stalinist rule (Stalinism) at the time. The opening montage itself attempts to establish a Polish identity, via short takes of the people of Poland singing the songs of Poland, denoting the significance of the people of the nation. The film battles the anxieties of an oppressive socio-political order and portrays the struggles against it in a cathartic spectacle of song and dance – making Cold War a sensational, sensory and visceral experience.

From the moment of Zula’s entry into the frame, she is treated as an object of desire for Wiktor; she is set apart from the rest of the women who came to audition (shots range from close ups to extreme close ups). From the moment they met, her body and her movements are portrayed from Wiktor’s perspective, the camera shifts from her singing to Wiktor’s concentrated gaze. There is an abundance of close-up shots on Zula’s face and body – the camera monitors each of her movements while she practices for the musical. At this early point in the film, it becomes increasingly evident that Zula’s characterization as a soft and delicate woman and her subsequent objectification is carried out for the gratification of Wiktor’s desires. This first instance of the camera launching an artful yet undisguised surveillance upon Zula’s body solidifies the paradigm of body politic, which ensues across the length of the film. 

Zula’s initial sophisticated outlook is shattered as soon as Wiktor finds out that she is on probation for attacking her father. He receives this information through his companion Irena, who hints at Wiktor’s interest in Zula and warns him of her violent back-story. Irena is also shown to be interested in Wiktor; therefore, this turns out to be a classic trope of pitting a woman against another woman. Wiktor however is smitten by Zula and cannot resist finding out more about her. At this moment, Zula’s character is fetishized in relation to her past. Wiktor inquires about her past (sustained monitoring of the female character), to which she reveals that her father had attempted to rape her, and she attacked him in self-defence. This is the first mention of Zula’s suffering – wherein her body has been under imminent abuse by her own father, an extreme form of suffering that should render Zula infinitely weak. However, the fact that she defends herself operates as her justice, and Zula’s demeanor and depiction are elevated from the initial softness to a more confident disposition. This sequence is however, in the form of a point-of-view-shot from Wiktor’s perspective. Zula opens up to him as the camera is first placed where he is located and then, at the back of him (capturing them both together). The very next sequence finds Zula dancing and practicing, as if the gravity of the previous scene where she describes her rape is washed over in a blink to re-focus on Zula’s bodily movements. Zula’s body is cast apart from the other dancers; the camera fades out the rest of the mob (supporting) characters in all dance sequences and specifically highlights Zula’s movements. After their first successful show, Zula and Wiktor immediately have sex, avoiding any delay in fulfilling the male protagonists’ primal desire. The camera focuses entirely on Zula during the act, crafting this scene from Wiktor’s point of view. 

Quickly after the success of their first show, Wiktor, Irena and their team are asked by the Soviet state representative to convert the musical into a token of respect for the ‘Leader of the Proletariat’ indicating Stalin, while promising the team fame and success in return. The team complies and it results in a propaganda performance. In the next sequence, the girls of the ensemble are seen dressed in school uniform with identical shirts, skirts and ties, and standing in a line, arms by their side repeating the Soviet pledge. This scene incorporates a typical sight of order and discipline. Here, the Soviet state apparatus directly exercises its ‘disciplinary power’ over the ‘docile’ community of Polish women performers whose bodies are continuously being ‘trained’ to obey and abide. 

The team prepares to perform in Berlin upon orders of the state and as passionate as Wiktor is about Zula, so he is about the integrity of his ensemble, and he prioritizes the Polish nation. Thus, he plans to flee to West Germany through Soviet-controlled East Germany. He asks Zula to flee with him. After delivering another propagandist performance in Berlin, Zula bails on Wiktor, finding herself stuck in ambiguity and fear about running away with Wiktor. Here, the lovers part ways for the first time as Wiktor waits and ultimately leaves for Paris alone, as Zula stays back with the ensemble. Zula desires to flee with Wiktor but worries that, if she does so, her probation will be violated and she will (presumably) be punished by law. Although the attack on her father was in self-defence, in 1949 women were treated unequally by the law, deprived of most of the rights that men were granted. Zula’s attempt was to protect her own body but, in the eyes of the society she was the criminal; thus, the discriminatory gendered politics constrained Zula. This is the first instance where Zula’s desires are suppressed by the patriarchal state structure. The camera portrays this suffering through a close-up on Zula’s face – her initial effervescence and youthful appearance is shattered, and in this shot, her face looks much older and meeker. This appearance of Zula is carried forward for the rest of the film. The fact that she is suppressed under layers of political, social and patriarchal structures is reflected through her helpless visage. Although the film is shot in black and white, the lighting on Zula’s face is considerably dimmer than earlier and the overall atmosphere around her is colder.

The film cuts to the lovers reuniting, six years later in Paris where Zula expresses to Wiktor that she felt “she wasn’t good enough for him” and attributes that as a reason for not running away with him to Paris. She also confesses to being in an unsatisfactory relationship at the moment and unhappy. The narrative constantly imposes a sense of inferiority and helplessness around Zula, although she barely fits the damsel-in-distress trope. As the film progresses, her character loses strength, as her only source of happiness is obtained from the doomed love with Wiktor. 

Wiktor arrives in Yugoslavia to watch Zula perform, but the authorities deport him back to Paris – he requests them to let him stay just the night for the sake of the “love of his life”. One of the officers directly refers to Zula as the “femme-fatale” in a dismissive manner while rejecting his request and hollering him out of Soviet-controlled area. Here, the narrative does two things: 1) forcibly attempts to categorize Zula as the ‘femme-fatale’ or the reason for Wiktor’s pain/failure and 2) draws a parallel between Soviets’ proliferating control over Poland, and Wiktor and Zula’s deteriorating relationship.

Next, the film cuts to Paris in 1957, where Zula visits Wiktor at his work; she discloses the fact that she only married to remain in Paris legally and around Wiktor. Zula’s character still remains gravely unstable, married to a random man as a compromise to feel at least the scurf of true love. Both remain married to others and unfaithful, as they embark on producing music together. In a particular scene, they arrive at a party where Zula is repeatedly objectified – either by the constant gaze of other men at the party or by the fact that Wiktor lies about her to his peers (saying she killed her father) to add ‘colour’ to her personality. When confronted by her, he compares her to Edith Piaf who garners more mass attention owing to her past in the brothel. A distressed Zula retreats to the bathroom on her own, and is seen drinking, she is visibly pale and weakened; her body seems powerless as she slouches and looks in the mirror, at her own broken self. Zula’s character is systematically broken by the narrative and this sequence epitomizes that brokenness. Additionally, Wiktor’s disregard towards Zula’s integrity and the camera’s constant focus on Zula’s movements as the men leer onto her reflects the underlying body politic.

Soon, it cuts to a sequence at a club, where a visibly depressed Zula gets drunk and dances with several men on top of a table. The camera again keeps the focus on her body. Her personal expression is always under surveillance, and any free expression of her body is portrayed as illicit. There is a clear demarcation with which the film approaches Zula’s dancing. When she danced for Wiktor’s musical practices (under his surveillance), the mise-en-scène and camerawork is invested in making the scene appear aesthetically pleasing, with soft focus and softer background scores; as opposed to when she dances for herself at the club (away from Wiktor’s surveillance), the cinematography is harsher, rapid, with loud background music and congested frames. Her body is portrayed as severely disciplined and controlled when she’s dancing for Wiktor versus completely unkempt and out of bounds, when she’s dancing for herself.

As Zula dances at the club, Wiktor’s expressions indicate shame and disapproval although it is his words and actions that have upset her. At this point in the film, Wiktor’s toxic masculinity and emasculated character become apparent. Zula is consistently objectified, sexualized and misrepresented via Wiktor. Here the film adopts the melodramatic doctrine of the ‘fallen woman’. Zula’s objectification vis-à-vis her subservience to Wiktor tells the universal story of the female – her objectification is unpreventable. The characterization of Zula carefully precludes any space for her personal satisfaction. It seems as if the complications of their impossible love affair or the burden of it relies solely on Zula, who is depicted as ‘inherently complicated,’, also resembling the condition of the Polish nation. Zula is representative of Poland, the nation, increasingly powerless and controlled by the rules of a larger power structure. In the same vein, the Soviet controlled Polish state apparatus oppresses Zula, as the sanctity of the Polish identity is increasingly maligned. In Cold War, the woman’s body is the site on which larger struggles are played out.

Wiktor and Zula two produce a record together, recreating the staple leitmotif in the latter’s voice. The record is in French, according to Wiktor’s ideas of commercial success and to Zula’s utter disdain. Akin to her customary marriage and her stay in Paris, she lends her voice to this record, for him. The listening party arranged for this record is a pivotal moment in the film where Zula is seen at the center of the frame with all eyes in the room on her. The shot slowly turns into a close up where Zula’s expressions are of abject despair – she visibly is (and feels) helpless. While returning together, Zula reveals to Wiktor that she’s been cheating on him, Wiktor responds with the direct attack on her body by slapping her. She does not retaliate and the scene ends with Zula’s face. At this point the film fully establishes Zula as the victim of this story by an episodic attack on her body.

The next scene is of Zula travelling to meet Wiktor in 1959, at the prison camp, where he has been sentenced to 15 years of time for returning to Poland illegally from non-Soviet controlled area. In this scene, where the two finally reunite and Zula is seen caressing Wiktor, she reveals a motherly instinct – protectively hugging Wiktor and promising to free him from prison. The camera is at first placed in front of them and then at their backs, and in both shots, Zula’s face is visible. 

In 1964 in Poland, Zula marries Kaczmarek, a former member of Wiktor’s music ensemble and an associate and ally of the Soviets in Poland – this marriage reflects Zula’s ultimate conformity to the Soviet control. She despises Kaczmarek and yet marries him out of necessity, to free Wiktor. Zula’s suffering increases progressively with each scene in the film and reaches its optimum as Zula is seen singing melancholically at a bar, as a free Wiktor chats with Kaczmarek. After her performance, Zula meets Wiktor in the bar’s restroom where they sit on the floor as Zula, drunk and devastated, takes off her wig – revealing how the course of the narrative has shattered her physical appearance. Zula’s body undergoes massive changes across the film, and it is in this scene, that her body is at its weakest. She has endured multiple attacks and is no longer the youthful, ‘beautiful’ girl seen at the beginning of the film. 

Towards the end of the film Zula begs Wiktor to take her away and “this time forever”. This scene cuts to Zula and Wiktor travelling to a decrepit old church, where they swallow some pills and wait for death to come as they sit on a bench beside a huge tree. The frame is picturesque and the tragedy of the shot is pronounced as the camera stays fixated on the two, and Zula says, “let’s go to the other side, the view will be better there”. The wind rustles and the grass sways, and the film ends with an empty bench in frame.


Cold War triumphs as a melodrama and it leaves the audience harrowingly unsettled. It also triumphs as a melodrama since at the heart of the film lies a woman’s struggle, for what seems to be the most important thing in the world to her (or womankind in general) – the love of a man. After 88 minutes of her turbulent struggle to attain love, she dies. Her death at the end of the film can largely be perceived as her ultimate failure. The many attacks on Zula’s body culminate in her suicide, the final attack on her living body. The film pretends to end in a bittersweet way since the lovers ‘ultimately’ end up together – however, with a closer (and a non-romanticized) inspection of the end, no part of it retains sweetness, their love affair results in the death of both characters but the woman, especially her physical body, endures most of what can be classified as the ‘struggle’ and dies with that suffering, as a defeated victim of patriarchy and politics. 

This paper incorporates the socio-political theory of ‘body politics’ into the fabric of a melodrama. In this framework of power, body politics is the tool employed by institutions and structures to reduce social agents down to docile bodies that diligently obey the structure. This paper argues that this theory of maintaining and strengthening the existing power structure through disciplining the human body is reflected in the melodrama. Melodrama, as posited by theorists such as Hayward (2000), Gledhill (1987) and Singer (2001), attempts to subvert the dominant power structures and offers women a representation on screen by weaving the narrative around female characters and investing in an excessive mise-en-scène that complements them. However, melodrama succumbs to the power politics of patriarchy by victimizing the woman and orchestrating her defeat, despite her vain struggles. 

This paper observes and studies this melodramatic paradigm in the aesthetically ethereal Polish film Cold War (2018) by Pawel Pawlikowski. The paper conducts a scene-by-scene analysis of the varied ways in which the body of the female protagonist of the film, Zula, is targeted and attacked. The paper also highlights the visual imagery of the film. Her body remains at the center of the camera’s focus largely across the film, the design of the shots and the overall technique aid the objectification and monitoring of Zula’s body. The narrative of the film carefully curates her downfall, along with the ideological underpinnings of the time which it recreates and reflects – 1949 communist Poland. 

The textual analysis of Cold War suggests that the overt politics of the film operates in congruence with the politics of the Soviet nation, which represses Polish desires and freedom alongside Zula’s own. Zula’s characterization as the victim of the film also solidifies melodrama’s eventual intent to depict the female as subservient. The findings of the paper also suggest that the completion of this victimization trope is achieved in the film through the systematic disciplining of, and attack on, Zula’s body. Zula is representative of the fallen woman, crushed by the burden of the society and the moving image that captures it.


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