Unsatisfying Conclusions

Abrupt endings to movies used to bother me. I wanted a neat, wrapped-together conclusion that answered at least the main questions raised within the movie. Maybe it was too many episodes of Law and Order, bringing everything together in an hour, or maybe it is just my first-born-child’s desire for order. It certainly still depends on the movie itself. If there are not enough clues for the viewer to form his or her own conclusion, sudden endings are disappointing. Whether it is a movie, or someone is telling us a story, we want to know what happened. What is the point of the story?

But if we are in the right frame of mind, an abrupt ending can create space to ask about meaning in a different way, one which does not require the narrative itself to give us all the answers. Multiple possibilities for interpretation open interesting roads for both the films and considering what is good and true within our own lives.

Cold War and Phoenix share several themes. They both take place in the context of war or its immediate aftermath. They both revolve around two people and what it might mean for them to love each other in the disrupted worlds in which they find themselves. They both show how those relationships evolve over significant amounts of time. And they both end abruptly, leaving us to answer the most important questions for ourselves.

Cold War (2018, streaming on Amazon Prime) is a Polish film. This movie unfolds so lavishly, it is easy to forget it is in black and white. Wiktor and Irena are seeking musicians and singers to re-create the Polish folk songs they have recorded. They have auditions and gather a group of young people, among whom is Zula. They begin to tour and perform, and the audiences grow. Finally, they come to the attention of the communist government, which pushes the group to adopt songs honoring Stalin and Communism. This opens doors for them which they might otherwise not have had, but Irena is opposed to it from the beginning. She leaves the company in quiet protest.


Wiktor continues with their other colleague, Kaczmarek, but he also becomes disillusioned, having fallen in love with Zula. Finally, in East Germany, he tries to convince Zula to defect with him. When she does not show up, he leaves for France. Thus, begins a series of reunions and separations covering the next decade-plus. Writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski has said the main characters are modeled after his parents who were, “both strong, wonderful people, but as a couple a never-ending disaster.” And so, no matter how and how often Wiktor and Zula meet up in different places and at different times, their relationship is always interrupted. This leads to the abruptness of the final scene, which appears to be a mutual suicide. After saying vows and kneeling before an altar in a ruined church, they divide a line of pills between themselves, pause for a moment on an inexplicable roadside bench, and finally walk together out of the frame.

It is a remarkable, beautiful film which leaves us with the question of the nature of love in this world. Everything, both without and within, seems to conspire against our good intentions and hopes for love. The world around us does not make a hospitable environment for love. But we do not have to look far for blame. Entirely on our own, we disappoint, wound, and destroy our relationships with each other, both out of selfish desire and from a frustrating inability to do the right thing when we have the chance.

While I enjoyed Cold War, Phoenix (2004, streaming on the Criterion Channel or for rent on Amazon Prime) enthralled me. Cold War sprawls (in a good way), but Phoenix is almost claustrophobic. It takes place in Berlin immediately after the end of World War II. This film contains all the tensions and contradictions which the Germans found in themselves, especially following the fall of the Nazis.

It opens with Lene and a bandaged, hidden Nelly confronted by American soldiers at a checkpoint. One of them demands to see Nelly’s face, although he quickly regrets it. Lene takes Nelly to a hospital, where they reconstruct her face, which had been damaged in a bomb blast. Nelly recovers and Lene takes her home, where they plan to leave for Palestine as soon as they can. Lene especially does not feel Germany will ever be safe for Jews again.

But Nelly cannot leave without seeing her husband again, who believes she is dead. Did he betray her to the Nazis, which caused her to be sent to a concentration camp? Or was it someone else? But when she first meets him, he fails to recognize her because of the facial surgery. Shocked, she cannot figure out how to tell him it is her. He, however, makes her part of a scheme to get Nelly’s estate.

Throughout, the tension increases until the moment when he finally discovers the woman he has been training to act as his wife actually is. In the meantime, she discovered a single piece of information which convinces her of his culpability without any doubt. And so, the abrupt ending, while not answering our question (“…but what happened then?”) is sad, but also a small triumph for Nelly.

I don’t mind films that bring things to a satisfying conclusion. But more and more, the satisfaction is short-lived. It is the unsatisfying ones that tend to stick with me and to which I return again and again, whether I watch them again or just think about them. Cold War and Phoenix are films to which I would definitely return.