Musicals from Behind the Iron Curtain

An unexpected top hat and tails dance number performed on piano tops is featured in the 1962 film from East Germany, Midnight Revue.

If you are a dedicated fan of movie musicals, you have probably been tempted to venture beyond the realm of Hollywood’s golden era to explore classic musicals from other countries like France (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), Germany (The 3 Penny Opera, 1931) or England (Evergreen, 1934). You would certainly have no trouble discovering top rated favorites from India which produces between 1,500 to 2,000 Bollywood movies a year, most of which include at least three to five musical numbers. It might be harder though to dig up a famous film musical from countries as diverse as…say, Sweden, Japan or Egypt…but they definitely exist and there are more than you would think. What you probably haven’t seen is a socialist musical from Russia or any of its satellite countries during the Communist regime. There’s a reason for that. Those films weren’t exported outside Iron Curtain countries during that era but you can experience a highly entertaining sampler of the genre in East Side Story, a documentary on Marxist musicals that premiered in U.S. theaters in 1997.

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Down on the Farm

The exploitation of animals in society and the food industry, in particular, is a problem most consumers don’t want to face or consider but a protest movement against the practice is growing larger every year thanks to hard-hitting documentaries like Myriam Alaux & Victor Schonfeld’s The Animals Film (1981), Shaun Monson’s Earthlings (2005), and Robert Keener’s Food, Inc. (2008) – all of which expose the mass production of animals for food. Tackling the same subject but taking a completely different approach to it is Gunda (2020) by Russian filmmaker Viktor Kossakovsky, which dispenses with voice over narration, a music score or any on-camera interviewees. Instead, it focuses a sow named Gunda and her piglets, a few chickens and some cows over a brief period on a farm before they become “products.” The concept may sound uninteresting and tedious but Gunda is not really a traditional documentary by any stretch of the imagination and the result is a completely engrossing, emotional drama with animals as its main characters.

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My Name is Ivan

“My discovery of Tarkovsky’s first film was like a miracle. Suddenly, I found myself standing at the door of a room the keys of which had, until then, never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease. I felt encouraged and stimulated: someone was expressing what I had always wanted to say without knowing how. Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.” – Ingmar Bergman

Nikolai Burlyaev gives a stunning performance as a war refugee turned Russian spy in Ivan’s Childhood (1962), the feature film debut of director Andrei Tarkovsky.

A harrowing yet poetic account of war seen through the eyes of a twelve year old boy, Ivan’s Childhood aka My Name is Ivan (1962) was Andrei Tarkovsky’s first feature film and one that had a major impact on Russian cinema and the international film world (It won the Golden Lion at the 1962 Venice International Film Festival). Continue reading

A Paean for Terra Firma

From an early age I developed a fascination with film but it wasn’t until college when my film interests expanded beyond American cinema to include international films and more specialized genres like underground, silent, documentary and exploitation movies. A Film History 101 course at the University of Georgia, curated by a drama professor, was partly responsible for that due to his eclectic overview which sampled the early work of Sam Fuller (The Steel Helmet, Park Row), Fritz Lang silents (Die Nibelungen: Siegfried & Kriemhild’s Revenge), the roots of Neorealism (La Terra Trema) and Hollywood studio system gems (George Sidney’s Scaramouche, An Affair to Remember). What made one of the strongest impressions, however, were examples of early Soviet cinema like Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera. And my favorite of them all was Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (Russian title: Zemlya, 1930), the third film in a trilogy that included Zvenyhora (1928) and Arsenal (1929).  Continue reading