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Hard Work, Happy Holiday — Later

ART TIMES July, 2005

You know the feeling you get watching your teenager hoofing it in a high school production of "Bye Bye Birdie". You may cringe a good deal but there is something uplifting at the earnestness of it all.  "East Side Story"* will do much the same for you.  Now you won't find this 1997 German/French film listed in most film guides. Leonard Matlin's Movie and Video Guide is an exception. He gives it three and a half stars, adding that it is a 'must see' for film buffs — and it is. The title is a take-off of the 1961 musical "West Side Story", the film a 78 minute history of the musical in Eastern Bloc countries from the 1930's through the 60's: Poland, Bulgaria, U.S.S.R., East Germany, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. This history is told by way of narration, interviews and numerous film clips — the last often funny in their amateurishness, often painful in the ideology that has been forced upon them, often inspiring in the struggle of filmmakers against the political and technical odds of producing a musical entertainment like that glimpsed in Western films. Curiously, American musicals, clearly the model for those filmmakers, are never referred to here as American — only 'Western'.

Sergey Eisenstein's theory of film, formulated in the early 1900's, lay heavily on all socialist filmmaking: the only proper theme of film is conflict, namely social conflict; art is not meant to entertain, only instruct in the ways of social realism — hardly notions that could encourage the musical. Nevertheless, and as narrated by Maya Turovokala, a Russian film historian, the socialist musical began with 1934 "The Jolly Fellows". The director, Grigori Alexandrov, after a visit to Hollywood and seeing the American films of that period, smuggled one or two lessons learned into this, his first musical. The film clip is too brief to see how social conflict was worked in but figuring he had to stick to an ideology that happiness comes through hard work we can assume we're seeing assembly line workers jamming it up after a rewarding fourteen hour day in a tractor factory and shot in camera angles and editing straight out of "Gold Diggers of 1933" and the surreal choreography of Busby Berkeley.

Fortunately for filmmakers, Joseph Stalin had a weakness for some occasional light-heartedness and did not take a hard-line on musical-of-sorts. 30's Russian films are filled with deliriously joyful peasants singing their hearts out while tossing hay, scything down wheat, and nodding in unison to the clanking of heavy machinery. Stalin's favorite film was the 1938 "Volga, Volga" — a swarm of peasants singing, juggling, strumming banjos as they poled their way on barges to bring their musical talents to Moscow. So fond of the film was Stalin that he gave a print to Franklin D. Roosevelt. A romantic note is sounded in the 1941 "The Swineherd and the Shepherd" where we see a buxom peasant girl leaping out from between birch trees, merrily singing, "Come out little piggies, it’s time to eat'.

Bouncy musical scores and catchy lyrics were not strong suits in any of the Iron Curtain countries — maybe because you had to be circumspect about what to say and how cheerily you say it. Music seems to run to marching rhythm and chant-like lyrics that could be belted out by mobs of extras clothed as factory and farm laborers. Rap, had it been available at the time, would have served these filmmakers well. "Carnival Night" (U.S.S.R. 1957), customarily played every New Year's eve, features a soloist singing a remarkably tuneless number called '5 Minutes', the lyrics of which state little more than that it’s five minutes to midnight.

Before the Wall went up East Germans had free access to American musicals playing in West Berlin. From such influence GDR filmmakers accepted the risks of skirting political censorship to fashion Western-looking musicals. Oddly, many of the later GDR and Czech set designs smack of 1950's American television commercials for kitchen appliances and sporty cars — promoting the prosperity enjoyed by socialist peoples was not politically frowned upon. The 1958 GDR "My Wife Wants to Sing" daringly offered that women have a right to earn their own living. Extremely popular, even in Soviet Russia, it was soon black-listed for violating socialist realism. GDR film actress Karen Schroeder (called the Doris Day of the East) in an interview speaks of the problems of making musicals with no trained actors, experienced story and song writers or dance troupes. They did come close — a 1968 musical "Hot Summer" has dance sequences that look like a cross between American beach movies and the gang rumbles in "West Side Story", managing as well to edge in some Swing and Cha-Cha to liven up the normally stolid scores.

Interspersed throughout "East Side Story" are re-enactments of government censorship warnings to filmmakers, demands they had better adhere to the doctrines of socialist realism and back away from any of the illusions fostered by decadent capitalism. Having fun was something to be deferred to a distant future — no happy holidays while there was yet so much happy work to be done.

*"East Side Story" available on DVD. ANDA Films, written and directed by Dana Ranga

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