East Side Story

The words “communist musical” may call to mind tractors and factories—both of which are certainly in evidence here—but this fascinating and enjoyable 1996 documentary by Romanian-born filmmaker Dana Ranga and American-born independent Andrew Horn presents the singular genre as a conflict between capitalist glitz and socialist poetry, revealing both the Marxists' tragicomic attempts to beat the West at its own game and the homegrown folksiness of their efforts. Reportedly only 40-odd musical features were produced in the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland, and Romania prior to the collapse of communism, and roughly half of them are excerpted here. Ranga and Horn interview writers, directors, stars, and ordinary viewers of communist musicals, as well as one prestigious film historian (Maya Turorskaya, best known here for her book on Andrei Tarkovsky). The selection of clips isn't everything it might have been—I regret the absence of any examples by Alexander Medvedkin, some of which are glimpsed in Chris Marker's The Last Bolshevik, and eastern European critics have cited other omissions. But Ranga and Horn's insights into communist film production and their story of how the communist musical triumphed or withered in its various settings offer plenty of food for thought. It's a grand subject, worth considering for more than its camp value. Subtitled. 78 min.

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