East Side Story: The Socialist Musical

Welcome to the Dream Factorski! (Cruising Down the River on a Sputnik Afternoon…)

By Steve Korver, 22-05-2008, Amsterdam Weekly



Once upon a time in the East, there was a Bloc-buster of a film genre—one that the unrestrained could call the ‘The Red Commie Musical’. These films came packed with tunes, drama, dance, romance, sheer wackiness and—most endearing for the modern Western viewer—a solidly alien conception. Who knew musicals could help sell the idea of a worker’s paradise?

esshop_bIn 1997, when directors Dana Ranga and Andrew Horn came out with their excellent documentary on the history of the genre, East Side Story, Eastern Bloc musicals seemed ripe for rediscovery. But they haven’t yet managed to seep into the universal camp unconscious. So it’s a happy thing that Filmhuis Cavia, as part of their 25th anniversary activities, is screening both the documentary and one of its best cases in point: the 1968 East German beach party musical Heisser Sommer!


As the narrator of East Side Story points out: ‘Jean-Luc Godard once said the history of film was the history of boys photographing girls. But Stalin had another fantasy—boys photographing tractors.’ His favourite genre was the socialist (sur)realist musical: endless fields of choreographed farm equipment, a roaring river of yodelling Rasputin look-alikes, a ‘Doris Day of the East’ chirpily strutting her cheekboned stuff in the name of higher production yields.

It all began in the early 1930s, when a film-maker named Grigori Alexandrov returned freshly stuffed with shtick after a few years in Hollywood, where he was Eisenstein’s assistant director and Charlie Chaplin’s drinking buddy. Under the guise of being a ‘crazy guy’—always the safest position to play—Alexandrov made The Jolly Fellows (1934), a comedy of errors going straight for the chuckle jugular where a Crimean shepherd gets mistaken for a famous musician. The film was promptly banned until bigwig writer Maxim Gorky managed to get Stalin in for a gander. He enigmatically responded with, ‘Anyone who dares to make a movie as humorous as this must be a brave man.’ And eventually Stalin helped clear the way for the making of the 1938 classic Volga, Volga—a flick which apparently had the dictator in stitches for over 100 viewings. In his enthusiasm, Stalin went so far as to award Alexandrov with a military medal (for bravery?). And hey, if it lightened the mind of a mass murderer, imagine what this giggle-ride could do for you.


While a few more snappily titled but more propaganda-prone classics—Tractor Drivers (1939), The Swineherd and the Shepherd (1941)—were filmed, the death of Stalin (and his reputation) essentially meant the death of the Soviet Musical.

But after the war, the gilded pitchfork was picked up by the new satellite states. Many of their media products for the proletariat helped to surreptitiously define glamour in lands where the concept didn’t even officially exist. Sure, these surreal-fests came somewhat crippled with ideology, but one can say the same for their Western counterparts. For example, while the celluloid Gene Kelly, with his jones for romance, embodied the American Dream, the real Kelly nearly got his dancing ass blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

essdancers_bHungary came up with Twice Two Sometimes Makes Five (1954), a love story between stunt pilots that, with its endless charade of parades, uniforms and fighting songs, eerily foreshadowed the Red Army invasion of 1956. Czechoslovakia took better advantage of its Prague Spring by putting the comic muse back into musicals. The ingeniously shot Woman on the Rails (1966), about a woman tram driver who loses it when she sees her man kissing another woman, deliriously walks the tightrope between intentionally and unintentionally hilarious. Your eyes will drool with delight as colour-coordinated housewives lean out of their colour-coordinated apartment building to exchange songs with their colourcoordinated husbands, who are below on the street washing their colour-coordinated Skodas.


But probably the juiciest—and most Technicolor—musicals came from East Germany. ‘Happy’ Hans Hendrick certainly did his best to brighten the working stiff’s day with My Wife Wants to Sing (1958) which exploited a former Miss Bavaria, not only to deal with vaguely feminist themes, but to hype the consumption of all the luxury goods that would appear once the country had dealt with that pesky problem of reaching production quotas. Naturally, it was banned. Not until its audio soundtrack recording became a hit did the state film studio DEFA back down and release it. This led DEFA to start producing more musicals in the hopes of winning back their audience, who were now, annoyingly, swarming to West Berlin for their capitalist-tainted fix.


This resulted in Midnight Revue (1962), a truly zingy vortex of pure entertainment and blatant absurdity that was shot for the funny bone of the masses while the Berlin Wall was being constructed right through the director’s backyard. And if that’s not absurd enough, the plot of four creatives being kidnapped and bullied into making a musical is in fact a direct mirror of what was actually occurring—a film being produced under the mantle of the same state that had the power to censor it. As the refrain goes: ‘It’s simpler to go iceskating in the desert/ Than to make a successful musical.’

essmd_bDEFA hit the jackpot with Heisser Sommer! (‘Hot Summer!’), the film that precedes the screening of East Side Story at the Cavia. It sold a stunning two million tickets, despite, or because of, its Hollywood plagiarisms, teenybopper cast and generally familiar beach blanket bongo-isms. These days, though, it holds no more sway than, say, Viva Las Vegas (although Elvis musicals did not have to stop shooting whenever the local hospital needed extra wattage). By the time the even more inane No Cheating, Darling (1972) came out, the genre could be considered officially dead, due in no small part to the emerging propaganda power, not to mention the couch convenience of television.


Still, if you have the inclination to dance to the lost dreams of socialism—and these dreams are, my comrades, not so very different from yours or mine—do take time to embrace these near-forgotten artefacts. (If nothing else, they’re a nice palate-cleanser for the Eurovision Song Contest taking place in Belgrade the next day—for which Filmhuis Cavia is also having a party.) And, the sweet thing is that when viewed today, these gems generally require no ironic disposition, just a willingness to surrender your ears and eyes, strap on those worker-built gossamer wings, and fly.


Thanks to Andrew Eddy for making these .giffs dance.

4 Replies

  1. Is the movie anywhere available to see? I seemed to have missed it on TV once. I never saw it return…

  2. pete holmes Jul 16th 2014

    Hi…do you know where I can buy a copy of “Tractor Driver” on DVD?

  3. ‘East Side Story’ is on youtube now!

    Not a thing to pay 70 USD for or make a new DVD release for, but stil :-)))

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