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The Trouble With Netflix’s New Cold War Thriller

“1983” imagines a terrifying alternate reality, but ignores the real dangers that Poland faces today.

Krzysztof Wiktor / Netflix

Earlier this year, the first issue of Vogue Poland appeared on newsstands. The Polish imprint of the fashion magazine joined Vogue Russia (launched in 1998) and Vogue Ukraine (2013) as the brand’s newest incursion into the East European market (Vogue Czech Republic and Slovakia later debuted in August). The March 2018 cover depicted Polish supermodels Małgosia Bela and Anja Rubrik posing in front of Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science, an eyesore of 1950s Stalinist architecture, with Bela leaning against an icon of Soviet automobile manufacturing, the hearse-like GAZ Volga. It was not the ode to capitalist luxury and open-market glamour that many in Poland, hoping to shake off associations of Eastern bloc drab, were expecting. “How come the ultimate symbol of luxury we were promised,” the Polish journalist Agata Pyzik jokingly asked (summarizing the sense of middle-class outrage sparked by the cover), “is not a glossy image of our country’s recent success, but an apotheosis of the bygone Soviet era we so much wanted to forget?”

The new Netflix original series 1983, the streaming service’s first Polish language in-house production, makes a similarly puzzling choice. 1983 is actually set in 2003, and it imagines a world (primarily a Warsaw) in which the Cold War never ended (and in which, for reasons unexplained, Al Gore won the 2000 election). The show follows a disillusioned former police investigator (Robert Więckiewicz) and an idealistic young law student (Maciej Musiał) as they try to uncover the truth behind a 1983 terrorist attack that stymied the Polish resistance movement by helping the communist Party consolidate power through fear.

The premise is especially counterintuitive for Poland, a country that was largely heralded as a shining example of a post-communist transition and celebrated for what looked like its embrace of democratic norms and economic liberalism. Fears of backsliding into communism did not manifest around Poland as intensely as they had in Russia (in 1996, the United States became highly concerned when Boris Yeltsin faced a tough election against Communist Party challenger Gennady Zyuganov). Perhaps the only way in which the choice of Cold War noir for Poland’s first Netflix original makes sense on a practical level: It provides Netflix’s global viewership with a familiar framing through which to comprehend Polish history. However, it’s also a framing that means the show avoids a specter far more real in Polish politics than the return of communism: the rise of far-right nationalism.

1983 is directed by Kasia Adamik, Olga Chajdas, Agnieszka Smoczynska, and Agnieszka Holland, whose 2011 Holocaust drama In Darkness was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. Holland is also directing British actor James Norton in 2019’s highly anticipated Gareth Jones, a film based on the true story of a Welsh journalist who reported on the Holodomor, the famine that besieged Soviet Ukraine in the 1930s. From 2015 to 2017, Holland also directed episodes of Netflix’s House of Cards, like that show, Holland’s newest series is full of shadowy figures holding secret meetings, ruthless politicians with nice houses, and phenomenal acting from the leads.

The first episode opens in 1983 with a member of an underground dissident group being tortured for information. The interrogator goes up to the street level to take a smoke break, where the Palace of Culture and Science can be seen looming in the background. Moments later, a series of bombings unfold across the major cities of Poland (Warsaw, Krakow, Gdansk). The “March 12 bombings,” as they will become known, represent a watershed moment for the show’s fictional Poland. The resistance movement was gaining ground by the early 1980s, and the collapse of the communist system was tending toward inevitability until the bombings happened.

Flash forward to 2003 and the country is awash with 20th anniversary commemorations of the attacks. The state TV channel shows mourners laying wreathes on monuments to the victims “whose sacrifice,” the announcer reads, “paved the way for the rebirth of our country and its peace and prosperity.” It is against this backdrop of supposed national unity that the characters in 1983 uncover the reality of a deeply divided country where dissent has been erased through falsified autopsy reports and compromised criminal investigations. We follow as the show’s two leads, the earnest young law student Kajetan Skowron (Musiał) and the jaded police Inspector Anatol Janow (Więckiewicz), get to the bottom of the March 12th bombings and what really happened in 1983.

When we meet Janow, he’s leading a raid on the apartment of a banned books trader who’s been selling illegal copies of Western books like 1984 and Harry Potter. The police arrive to find the suspect, a young man named Łukasz Ziółek, dead in what by all appearances is a suicide. Janow, however, becomes suspicious when he tries to access Ziółek’s government record, but is told he would need Level 1 clearance to do so (Level 1 demarcates ministers at the highest levels of the security service). Janow begins to suspect that was Ziółek was a member of the Light Brigade, an underground network of young dissidents determined to overthrow the Party.

Meanwhile, Janow’s eventual partner, the law student Kajetan first appears onscreen in the middle of his final oral examination. Kajetan, a sharp student, responds accurately, but predictably to the questions posed, never doubting the authority of the Party in matters of justice. That is until one of the examiners, his mentor Professor Zurawski, warns him against placing too much faith in any man-made legal code, imploring him to look higher, to “truth.” The truth about what? We soon learn that Zurawski, a former judge, oversaw a case where Janow was lead detective, a mysterious triple homicide that, like Ziółek’s apparent suicide, smacked of a political cover-up. The case file inspires Kajetan to seek out Janow. As the two men begin to connect the dots, the world of double agents and government conspiracies we have come to expect from political thrillers starts manifesting onscreen.

A compelling and well-produced drama, the only real flaw of 1983 is unfortunately, its drastic disconnection from the politics of the present other than highly generalized references to authoritarianism. The show relies on a belief that the Cold War was a uniquely terrifying political reality that can serve as a kind of shorthand for all things bad. The mere mention of “the Party” and “Moscow” are supposed to be spine chilling. That is a tough sell given the fresh horrors of our own moment, including as they have manifested in Poland. For the past three years, the country has been in the grip of a social crisis, with villains who pose a far more immediate danger than “the Soviets” in the show.

In 2015, the Christian conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) won a majority in the Polish parliament. Led by Jarosław Kaczyński, Law and Justice has been largely defined by Euro-skepticism, its attempts to limit women’s reproductive rights, and virulent xenophobia. In the wake of the migrant crisis, Kaczyński claimed refugees from the Middle East could be carrying parasites. Law and Justice spent years flirting with Poland’s far right and is now struggling to keep extremists in check. Last November, the spread of white nationalist extremism in Poland made headlines when far right groups marched on Polish Independence Day carrying signs that read “Pure Poland, White Poland.”

A significant part of 1983 involves the Vietnamese community living in Poland: Warsaw’s “Little Saigon” is repeatedly shown as a source of good food and contraband for the Light Brigade. Poland in fact boasts the fourth largest Vietnamese population in Europe, a diasporic community largely formed through student exchanges between the two communist countries during the Cold War. But there again, the onscreen representation of a migrant community in a country currently besieged by anti-migrant sentiment serves primarily as a nod to the country’s communist past, not to the conflicts ravaging it in the present. In this way, 1983 misses an opportunity that was taken up successfully by another Netflix co-production, Collateral: The British police procedural starred Carey Mulligan as a detective whose investigation of the murder of a Middle Eastern migrant worker in London is set against the Syrian refugee crisis, thus tapping into real fears about our political moment and its casualties.

1983 raises important question about what fictional dystopias should look like in our current reality of climate apocalypse, crushing inequality, and far-right extremism. How much longer will these alternate universes continue to frighten us more than what we see out of our own windows? While expertly crafted and acted, 1983 ultimately struck me as a good show in need of a better villain. We are perhaps past the point where shadowy Party bosses in Moscow and communist architecture are sufficient to scare.