A wildly entertaining revelation, “East Side Story” draws back the curtain on a whole area of filmmaking hitherto unknown to most Western audiences: Soviet and Eastern bloc musicals. Not nearly as campy as it is jaw-droppingly fascinating and downright fun, this well-made and endlessly informative docu will delight film buffs and Communist-era specialists alike, and would be an excellent bet for limited theatrical runs before cable, public TV and video release, which would appear to be a lock worldwide.
A collaboration between Stateside producer-writer Andrew Horn and Romanian-raised director-writer Dana Ranga, this densely packed, fast-moving picture takes an only slightly bemused and ironic look at the popular entertainment productions that were cranked out on a limited basis by the state-run film industries of the Soviet Union, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Poland and Bulgaria up through the mid-1960s.
None of these films, of which there were apparently about 40, was ever exported to the West, and given the primacy of Socialist realism, propaganda and historical revisionism in pictures made under these regimes, filmmakers were sometimes going way out on a limb with productions that were often bluntly oblivious to the strict political agendas of government authorities.
The astonishment that these films exist at all sustains throughout the entire documentary. Beginning with a number in which workers joyfully proclaim, “We sing the song of the coal press,” pic unfurls excerpts from nine ’50s and ’60s musicals, including such unknown titles as the Romanian “Vacation On The Black Sea” and the Czech/GDR co-production “The Wayward Wife,” while a few vets of the respective industries, including East German lenser Erich Gusko and actress Karin Schroder, put their work in some perspective.
Focus then racks back to the Soviet Union in the early ’30s, when Grigori Alexandrov, who had been to Hollywood with Eisenstein and became friendly with numerous U.S. filmmakers, risked his neck to make a straight entertainment, “The Jolly Fellows.” Initially banned by censors, it was subsequently seen by movie fan Stalin and approved, paving the way for Alexandrov to make the 1938 classic “Volga, Volga,” which became Stalin’s favorite movie (he saw it more than 100 times) and was a holiday staple on Russian TV even in the Brezhnev era.
With an informative Russian film historian guiding the way, pic spotlights the amazing “Tractor Drivers,” a 1939 paen to the glories of mechanized collective farming in which men sing the praises of Comrade Stalin while plowing the fields, before settling into the World War II generation of inspirational musicals.
These appear to have been marked by sturdy blonde heroines laboring tirelessly on behalf of Mother Russia, and while the films very likely excerpt better than they would play at full length, they don’t seem half-bad. In fact, the clips are effective enough to give a taste of how emotionally powerful the pictures must have been for domestic audiences at the time. Not only that, but from the points of view of production values, music, choreography, rhythmic editing and, most crucially, creating a glorified picture of real life, “a comforting illusion” for citizens to believe in during a difficult time, these Soviet films seem to be very much on a par with the average Hollywood musicals of the period.
While the USSR all but dropped the making of musicals after Stalin’s death, the practice was strangely taken up by its new satellite nations, especially East Germany, which felt the need to compete with the entertainment films from the West its citizens were accustomed to seeing. Given the threadbare technical resources on hand at the time at the DEFA Studios, this resulted in some very tacky looking productions. But the overriding surprise is the extent to which these films seem to celebrate a consumer, luxury-oriented society to come. Clips are loaded with exclusive store windows filled with designer clothes that socialism will one day be able to provide, and an astonishing 1965 Czech tuner, “Woman on the Rails,” features dancers cavorting amidst a street full of flashy new convertibles, soon to be obtainable by all. If only they had known.
Despite the incongruity of it all, one tends to laugh and smile with the clips rather than at them, which speaks to a certain integrity that many of them possess. Glimpsing these brief snippets for the first time certainly makes the interested viewer want to see more, and enterprising programmers could do well to schedule seasons or accompanying bills of a number of related titles to take advantage of the curiosity sparked by “East Side Story.”
Sporadic narration by director Ranga attempts to personalize the docu in a not entirely comfortable way. Film clips are in excellent condition.