East Side Story

An oxymoron? East Side Story is a fascinating 1997 documentary about musical comedy from the Soviet bloc from the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s!

OK, it does sound like an oxymoron.

But it turns out that it isn’t. This German documentary starts out with what you would expect — or at least what expected: happy peasants and farm-workers who grimly try their hardest to make communism entertaining. Early musicals from East Germany, the USSR, Czechoslovakia, and Romania were indeed pretty grim, making it hard to tell what’s parody, what’s propaganda, and what’s just plain bad. Here are a couple of quotations:

When it came to Soviet films, there was no entertainment to be had.

and

Happiness lies only in work, especially physical work.

No one would expect socialist realism to produce engaging musicals, but I do have to admit that it was surprisingly effective at replacing the choreography of artificial dances with the natural movements and rhythms of work in the fields and factories. It was also a revelation to read this quotation from the LA Times:

Stalin, of all people, was a huge fan of the genre. During the 1930s, he saw “Volga Volga” hundreds of times. He was so smitten with director Grigori Alexandrov’s “The Jolly Fellows” that when the movie was banned because of a lack of ideology, Stalin had the ban lifted.

Some of the musicals featured in East Side Story were Midnight Revue (1962), Hot Summer (1968), Beloved White Mouse (1964), and Woman on the Rails. (1965).

The film closes with this afterword:

To Karl Marx, without whom none of this would have been necessary.



Categories: Movies & (occasionally) TV