Giving Hollywood musicals a tint of red

July 24, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"East Side Story" is a fascinating slice of the social and cultural histories of East Germany and the Soviet Union from the 1930s to the 1960s. And, with its East German teens swiveling their hips to '60s pop and collective farmers roaring into lively musical numbers, it's proof positive that even Communists gotta dance.

And its core material -- scenes from rarely screened socialist musicals from those decades -- is a marvelously colorful and animated document of the collision between Western ideas of glamour and excitement and socialist-realist aesthetics.

But to get to these delicious morsels, viewers must suffer through those twin-evils of nonfiction filmmaking: talking heads and a soporific narration. Had it been made with the sly ingenuity that graced so many socialist musicals, "East Side Story" may have been a thoroughly entertaining film. As it stands, it is merely enlightening and mildly engaging.

As Hollywood was enjoying its golden age during the 1930s, the fantasies it was selling (wealthy people singing and dancing amid posh settings) weren't lost on Eastern European Communists. Lenin recognized the propagandistic power of the cinema and its frothy images. Although American musicals would seem at odds with Socialist ideas of hard work and no play, Lenin, and later Stalin, would encourage Soviet filmmakers to co-opt the Hollywood extravaganza -- reconstituted to glorify state communism.

The results? Happy workers trilling, "We sing a song of the coal press"; "Beach Blanket Bingo" set on the Black Sea; dance numbers featuring women in good, solid, politically correct coveralls. The bliss that Rogers and Astaire found in soignee lounges and luxe oceanliners was found in Soviet Russia and East Germany in factories and collective farms.

Although the archival material that Danga has unearthed for "East Side Story" is fascinating, her interviews with film historians, filmmakers and the "real people" whose lives were affected by these films have an oddly stifling quality, which isn't helped by the documentary's stiff narration. Missing too, is valuable historical context, both of German and Russian film and such wrinkles as World War II, with its alliance of the Soviet Union and the United States.

Still, "East Side Story" is a fascinating document of how Western culture began to be reprocessed -- and eventually appropriated, with revolutionary results -- behind the Iron Curtain. And after all, where else can American filmgoers share in the antic goings-on of "Hard Work, Happy Holiday" (East Germany, 1950) or "The Swineherd and the Shepherd" (USSR, 1941)?

"East Side Story" should be seen, if only to be believed.

'East Side Story'

Directed by Dana Ranga

Released by Kino International

Unrated

Running time 77 minutes

Sun score ** 1/2

Pub Date: 7/24/98

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