East Side Story Review

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This documentary looks at the movie musicals produced under the Soviet regime, and the obstacles they overcame to draw huge audiences.


Cineastes detested their triviality. Politicians regarded them as dangerously pro-capitalist. Filmmakers saw them only as a chance to subvert the tenets of Socialist Realism. And studio heads considered them a waste of precious resources. Yet audiences behind the Iron Curtain flocked to the musicals that somehow made it through the system - and that is why this documentary was made.

Even now, the songs are hailed as standards and classics such as Carnival Night (USSR, 1957) are as much part of the Christmas telly as It's A Wonderful Life is in the West. Only 40 musicals were made in the Eastern Bloc between the coming of sound and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Virtually none of them made it past Checkpoint Charlie. It's easy to mock the idea of singing tractor drivers and dancing machine parts. But as Dana Ranga's film progresses, you begin to see similarities between these corny Communist confections and the supposedly superior sophistications dished up by Hollywood. These were entertainments that lightened the load of the Five Year Plan in much the same way that Fred and Ginger or Busby Berkeley eased the Depression.

But it's not all waltzing Stakhanovites and ditties about collective farming. By the 60s, East German musicals were reflecting the demands of the public and not the Party. Karin Schroeder emerged as a socialist Doris Day, while Frank Schobel was nicknamed the Elvis Of The East. Laugh if you like, but Hot Summer and No Cheating Darling were as trendy as any US beach party romp or the hip kids flicks made (albeit a decade earlier) by such British "rock and rollers" as Cliff Richard and Joe Brown.

Ranga makes no false claims for the Communist musical. It probably only merits a footnote in the annals of European cinema. But it's a fascinating one all the same.