Yesterday I went to see a Polish-language movie called Cold War that has already won numerous accolades across Europe, for its acting, direction and cinematography, that apparently was financed by a mixture of some 17 companies from several countries, and that, in my opinion, skilfully blended the story of an aching personal love affair with the political situation throughout Europe in the years between the movie’s first scene in 1949, and its last scene in the late 1960s.
This blending of the personal with the political is not so easy to do, but it has been triumphantly achieved by the director Pawel Pawlikowski. But to me the film will probably be memorable --- that in itself is a big challenge, for I usually forget almost everything I have seen or read by the following day, a lapse that can be overcome once I find a trigger, a scene, or some indication, of what the film or book was about --- because it brought to mind very vividly an era in which folk dance troupes from the Soviet bloc regularly toured western theatres, playing to wildly appreciative audiences everywhere.
The film opens with a beautiful young blonde woman, Zula, played by the riveting Joanna Kulig, recently released from jail, being auditioned by a rather severe somewhat older couple, for membership in an about-to-be-formed song and dance troupe. The man, Wiktor, played by Tomasz Kot, says to his companion that that girl has something, and they should look at her again. The woman is rather reluctant, but the girl is chosen, proves to have a good voice, excellent discipline, and fits easily into the highly structured folk dance troupe without any problem. There are indications that she becomes the lover of this man, Wiktor, who is the musical director of the troupe, but things are moved quickly on to the troupe’s first visit to Berlin, as if their relationship means very little, especially compared with the propaganda value of the troupe as it is emphasized in Berlin, as well as by the relevant Polish authorities.
Soon the two lovers are seen lying in a field, Zula saying she will never leave him, but later she announces, “I am ratting on you.” She thus confesses she is answering questions by the authorities as to his background, his objectives, his habits, whether he has dollars, and so on.
He arranges for them to leave for Paris, but she doesn’t turn up. He is settled in Paris, making a living as a musician, when she finally arrives. She has married meantime, but neither doubts that they belong together. As the film proceeds, she does reach the artistic freedom of the west, but this is given a rather ironic twist when her favourite folk song, sung with lusty pride in Poland, is sung --- beautifully, mind you --- as a cabaret torch song in Paris. She dances to Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock and is seen later performing as a fake Mexican in a fake mariachi band. “Can you get me out of this?” she pleads. Within a short time she has left to return to Poland., and he has been arrested for illegally crossing borders. Naturally, they finish together after all their vicissitudes, but their ending is left as rather anomalous.
What stirred my memory are the shots of the troupe in action, the heavy, circular, energetic dances of Eastern European folk lore, their stamping feet, their harmonic, heavy singing of their folk tunes, their remarkable acrobatic manoeuves: I must have attended quite a few such concerts, it all came flooding back to me so strongly.
I especially remember meeting as they got off the train at Montreal’s Windsor station the famed Moiseyev dance troupe from Moscow. I tried to interview their charismatic director, a man basking in accolades from throughout the western world, who seemed vastly amused to be the centre of such attention.
He had a young interpreter, on assignment from his job as a reporter for a Moscow trades union paper, whom I invited to my house for an evening, which he accepted. We exchanged the usual platitudes in these circumstances without getting much closer than just expressions of goodwill. He suggested I should write an article for his newspaper about Canada and its relationship to the United States.
I did as he suggested, and eventually when he visited again as interpreter for the famous violinist, Leonid Kogan, I saw the article that had been published in the Russian language with my by-line. I had it translated by one of our staffers whose family came from that part of the world, and to say the least, the translation of my carefully guarded expressions of friendship was loose. I always expected to hear from the RCMP admonishing me for my boldness in having my name featured in a Moscow newspaper but if they ever heard about it they evidently decided its impact was so minimal as to be beneath concern.
Contacts in those days between us and any citizens of the Soviet bloc were always dominated by our built-in suspicion that they had in mind only propaganda, and might be expected to try to recruit you as a spy --- a ludicrous idea, when you come to think of it, but one that was freely bandied about at the time.
I remember as a reporter whose assignment was to cover the hotel beat, that I was told a Soviet agricultural delegation was staying in the Laurentien hotel. They gave me the room number, so I went up, knocked on their door, and when I announced that I was from the local press, was welcomed in enthusiastically by a robust, genial elderly man who seemed delighted to have run up against an ordinary resident of Canada. He had a bottle of vodka sitting on top of the room’s TV set, hidden behind a newspaper folded in front, but only minutes after I arrived in his room he had whipped the newspaper aside, opened the bottle and was pouring generous drinks all around. It was not yet 10 o’clock in the morning, rather early to engage in a heavy round of alcoholic drinks, but I figured the honour of the nation was at stake, and I manfully undertook to match them glass for glass. An hour and a half later I staggered back to the office, where I wrote an eloquent tribute to the need for our two sparring nations to set our differences aside in the name of peace in the world.
My name must have gotten into someone’s data base in Moscow, because on another occasion, when I was out of town, a small group of actors, headed by an elderly man who was said to be one of the great men of the Soviet theatre, turned up at my house with their young interpreter. My wife, who was charmed to the back teeth by this old man, had an evening with them that she never forgot, but unfortunately she forgot the name of the elderly actor, so I never did discover which great star of the Moscow stage we had entertained.
Later, in London, I considered it part of my professional duty --- although it really wasn’t --- to maintain some contacts with operatives from the Eastern bloc, partly because I really always did believe the cold war was unnecessary rubbish, but also because for the most part they were always amiable and friendly, although the odd one could be boring as hell.
I used to meet them once a year, in addition, at the annual conferences of the Labour Party, where it was always my pleasure to spend the evenings drinking with old-time British trades unionists, along with the occasional Eastern diplomat. One chap in particular was especially amiable, John Mrazek, a diplomat with the Czechoslovakian embassy. He was a real hail-fellow-well-met type of guy who had worked hard to be accepted by the leaders of British society, and had succeeded in receiving many invitations to the homes of the nobs. A few years later I was called in by MI5, the British secret police service and questioned about my contacts; I had expected them to concentrate on a young Russian whose name I have forgotten, but whose behaviour seemed the closest I had struck that might be interpreted as that of a spy. But no, their interest was in John Mrazek, who they told me was an operative of his country’s secret service, but had never been anything but proper towards me.
Years later I read a book by a man who had defected from the Czech service, who told an interesting story about Mrazek, who he said was a man who loved to dream up extravagant plots. One of these concerned Edward Heath. at the time Leader of the Opposition to the government of Harold Wilson, He was known to be a skilled organist, and was suspected in some circles of being gay. It appears the Czech operatives had discovered that one of the world’s great organs was in a church in Prague, that Heath longed to play it, and so John Mrazek set up for him to meet a leading Czech organist who would invite him to his city for that purpose. While he was there he was to be photographed in a compromising situation of some kind, and threatened with exposure if he did not co-operate. It appears Heath had gone so far as to accept the kind invitation of the Czech musician, and was all ready to go when MI5 stepped in to warn him of the dangers, so that he cancelled the visit. That was probably John Mrazek’s last, foiled, plot.