“Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives” is a book written by Allan Bullock that talks about the parallelism in Hitler and Stalin’s lives – their success, failures, involvement in politics, economic downfalls, wars, and many more. On the other hand, the movie East/West talks about the situation between USSR and Germany. This movie is somehow related to Bullock’s book because of the characters and the flow of events that were highlighted in the movie.
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“East-West” is basically an old-style, behind-the-Iron-Curtain drama-adventure. The action kicks off in June ’46 onboard a ship bound to Odesa that’s full of Russians tempted back by the Soviet government’s offer of an amnesty to anyone who skipped the country in the past 30 years. But their joy at returning to the motherland is soon cut short when, immediately upon arrival in Stalin’s gray Soviet Union, they’re either shot or sent off to gulags.
Because of his badly needed skills as a doctor, Alexei Golovin (Russo star Oleg Menshikov, from “Burnt by the Sun” and “The Barber of Siberia”) is given a job as a chief health officer at a weaving factory in Kyiv and manages to save his French wife, Marie (Bonnaire), from a brutal interrogation by secret police chief Pirogov (Grigori Manukov), who tries to brand her a Western spy.
Alexei, Marie, and their young son are assigned a room in a multifamily apartment, and Marie is given a job in the wardrobe department of an army song-and-dance troupe. Their marriage comes under strain as Marie realizes she’s trapped in the country and Alexei acknowledges that he’s blundered big-time in deciding to return home.
When Alexei admits he’s slept with Olga (Tatyana Dogilova), the apartment “supervisor” who lives in the room opposite, Marie kicks him out. Alexei moves in with Olga and shares duties with Made in looking after their son.
While Alexei pretends to be a good Soviet citizen, Marie becomes friendly with fellow tenant Sasha (Sergei Bodrov Jr.). A champion swimmer who’s lost his motivation since his grandmother was carted off to a camp, Sasha is encouraged by Marie to train on his own in hopes of being selected for a Euro meet — and thereby help her get out after he’s defeated.
She also makes a personal appeal for help to left-wing French actress Gabrielle Develay (Deneuve), who’s visiting with the Theatre National Populaire in a Victor Hugo play. Pic’s last hour centers on Marie and Sasha’s attempts to escape, climaxing almost seven years later in a bold plan by Gabrielle to whisk Marie and her son to safety while the musical troupe is visiting Bulgaria.
Early on, it’s apparent that the movie is an old-fashioned heroes-and-villains yarn, with all of the Soviets portrayed as slogan-spouting bad guys, every doorway concealing secret police, and the production design and muted-color lensing hammering home the drabness of the place. But in the initial stages, the performance of Bonnaire and Menshikov do at least create an emotional center for the movie, as wife and husband stick to each other to try to survive their massive mistake.
When the couple separates, the film starts to lose its focus, and in a movie whose dialogue is a good 50% in Russian, Bonnaire becomes sidelined as the young swimmer’s story is developed. The final half-hour is a dramatic jumble, with captions suddenly jumping the story ahead by months and years as if the filmmakers are running out of time to squeeze everything into two hours. There are also signs throughout of considerable cutting during post-production.
Less is certainly not more in the case of “East-West,” which has enough dramatic potential to sustain a longer running time and when composer Patrick Doyle’s symphonic score is at full tilt and Wargnier lets the visuals breathe, attains a Romanesque sweep.
The last couple of reels, as Marie plans to escape and learns the truth of Alexei’s apparent cooperation with the authorities, hint at the powerful, emotional movie “East-West” could have been. Too often, though, the dialogue is saddled with token exchanges: “I love you, Marie.” “It’s finished, Alexei.” “It will never be finished between us, Marie.”
Bonnaire, as usual, looks natural in period duds but – as Deneuve shows, when she finally strides into the frame, exuding grand dame from every pore – doesn’t have the stature to carry a big movie of this kind. Menshikov is generally good, especially in scenes where he is called on to play duplicitous games with Party members. Bodrov – sort of “Prisoner of the Mountains” director, who co-scripted here — is focused and intense as the young swimmer.
The film repeatedly compares communism to Hitler’s Germany, but it is East-West itself that perpetuates the most insidious kind of fascist propaganda. Wargnier’s film attacks the specter of “communism” with the same tools that Leni Riefenstahl employed in the 1930s. The miasma of communism – represented by silly accordion bands in monochromatic uniforms, the absolute rule of suspicion, and the triumph of the weak over the powerful – is set in contrast to the beauty of physical form represented by a young Olympian (Sergei Bodrov Jr.). His sculpted body is consistently threatened by the Stalinist government. As Wargnier crosscuts between emotionally manipulative scenes with Spielberg’s calculation, the swells of Patrick Doyle’s Wagnerian musical score suggest the grandeur and potency of a “freedom” at best poorly understood, at worst reified.
Certainly, Stalin’s oppressiveness should be remembered and not repeated. Yet in the romantic tradition of the classic cinema to which Wargnier pays homage, the specificities of Stalin’s communism are too easily equated with communism (or indeed Marxism) in general. This conflation is in fact so common that it slips by virtually unnoticed.
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The ideological potency of a film must be great when it prompts such a gainfully employed critic to contradict himself so plainly. Only in the arena of cinema can nations be thus felled by the tremble of a woman’s lip. Like Indochina, East-West is visually stunning, but like a fourth of July fireworks display, its employment in the service of nationalism tarnishes its color.
The movie is informative and entertaining. It gives life to what we just normally read or see in books, like the Parallel Lives. But the movie failed to give justice to history. There are elements in the movie that do not coincide with one another. There are parts of the history that are not mentioned even if they are important aspects of the major character’s lives. There’s nothing extraordinary for this film aside from being partly historical.