East Side Story Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 0 DVD release of East Side Story

One of the problems of engaging with the culture of another country is that unless you actually go and live there for a certain length of time, you’re always going to rely on the opinions and selections of others. In the West, Soviet and pre-1989 Eastern European cinema is almost entirely represented by the work of important “serious” directors such as Eisenstein, Tarkovsky, Forman and Chytilová, plus the occasional one-off international hit like The Cranes are Flying or Closely Observed Trains – films that, while their high critical standing was usually justified, aren’t especially representative of what mass audiences in their native countries preferred to watch.

What they were watching, like mass audiences anywhere else, were comedies, thrillers, action movies (I’ve yet to establish concrete proof that the 1980s saw a spate of Russian Rambo rip-offs featuring heroic square-jawed KGB men blowing away weak and cringing Americans, but it’s a lovely thought!)? and of course musicals. But unlike American musicals, which were primarily meant to entertain, these musicals had a more ideological purpose: they packaged communist propaganda in an easy-to-swallow song-and-dance form.

The 79-minute documentary East Side Story is a potted history of these musicals – and the result can’t help but be absolutely riveting for all sorts of reasons. It’s been impressively researched – there are excerpts from 23 films, virtually none of which have ever been shown in the West, interspersed with comments from the people who commissioned, made and performed in them, film historians setting them in the right context, and members of their original audience who saw them when they came out.

The Soviet musical is the first to come under the spotlight, largely because it was the first chronologically, and it seems as though Stalin’s personal fondness for the genre (established after he saw The Jolly Fellows, a 1934 musical comedy by former Eisenstein associate Grigori Alexandrov) was the major impetus for its development. Throughout the next two decades the Soviet film industry regularly turned out musicals, many of which were explicitly intended as both a glorification of the Soviet worker (factories and farms featured prominently as settings) and a justification of current policy.

Many of these clips go so far beyond parody that satirists might as well give up now. Yes, there really was a 1939 Soviet musical called Tractor Drivers, though the real show-stopper in this section is a quite jaw-dropping number from a 1946 film called Cossacks of the Kuban River which combines synchronised wheat harvesting by ruddy-cheeked farm workers straight out of the most clichéd Socialist Realist paintings, all singing a admittedly extremely catchy song with lyrics that the subtitles translate as: “We are working on the steppes/Before the sun comes up/So we have bread to nourish/Our athletes and heroes/Our girls who should be pretty and skilful/Our boys who should be fiery in their love/Harvest! Harvest! Keep loading! Keep loading!/The quota has been attained!”

The Soviet musical largely died with Stalin in the early 1950s, so the second half of East Side Story moves to Eastern Europe, focusing largely on East Germany, whose studios also produced overtly socialist musicals – though stylistically these were very different from their Soviet predecessors, reflecting both a much more urbanised society, technical innovations such as Cinemascope, and even an acknowledgement of the film’s likely audience: many of these films revolved around teenagers and their dreams of a better world, that better world being the inevitable outcome of the state’s far-sighted vision of a glorious socialist future.

Crushingly naïve though these films undoubtedly were, East Side Story commendably resists the temptation to go for easy laughs. It was a particularly good idea to intercut comments from experts with reminiscences from ordinary punters of the time – after all, these were films intended for the mass audience and they were supposed to provoke a reaction. More importantly, these comments reveal a great deal about the society that spawned the films – few people had any illusions about their real purpose, but there’s the same kind of genuine affection for them that Western audiences have for tenth-rate Hollywood romantic comedies and long-forgotten stars: they trigger off memories of an earlier, possibly happier time in their lives.

I can’t say I was particularly compelled to seek out full-length versions of any of the films excerpted – most of the commentators concede that they’re not very good, either in retrospect or at the time of their original release. But, as with David McGillivray’s outstanding Doing Rude Things, a book about the history of the British sex film from the 1950s to the 1970s, East Side Story is primarily a fascinating social history, casting a valuable spotlight on a field that other historians have totally ignored. I’m very glad producer Andrew Horn and director Dana Ranga took the trouble to dig them out – and I’m even more grateful to Kino for preserving their efforts on DVD.

This made-for-TV documentary isn’t the kind of thing that’s going to stretch the DVD format at all, but I didn’t really expect that it would. Needless to say, it’s in non-anamorphic 4:3, which is fair enough given that that’s the aspect ratio of most of the clips (widescreen excerpts have been framed correctly), and the visual quality of the material is decidedly variable, ranging from very good (though never stunning) to pretty ropey – though, again, this is completely understandable. I’d also guess that the DVD was sourced from NTSC videotape – there’s a slight texturing to the image in addition to the film grain, there’s conspicuous blurring on motion in the video interview footage, and the colours are rather subdued: I’d have expected this with faded celluloid stock, but this also applies to the contemporary interviews.

Kino doesn’t normally list the sound format of its DVDs, but I couldn’t hear anything from any speaker other than the central one – so it’s probably safe to assume it’s mono. Again, this is totally acceptable given that the film clips wouldn’t have been anything else, and the sound quality is exactly what you’d expect for a documentary that intercuts between contemporary recordings and soundtracks that are several decades old. It’s pointless being overly picky, though – given the purpose of this documentary, both picture and sound do the job that’s required of them and I didn’t have any serious complaints.

But while the DVD ultimately is not much better than my taped-off-BBC2 copy (in fact, in one respect it’s worse: the burned-in subtitles are conspicuously smaller), this isn’t the kind of film where it matters – and what the DVD adds are 13 chapter stops and, even more usefully, a printed list of all the films featured plus a chapter index as to where clips can be found.

But that’s the only extra, which is a great pity given the potential for fascinating programme notes and historical contextualisation: even something as simple as biographies of the people involved would added a great deal. Genuinely eye-opening though East Side Story is as a film, as a DVD it’s something of a missed opportunity.

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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