A naive Russian émigré and his family repatriate to post-WWII Soviet Union, only to discover, too late, the full truth about life under socialism. [ East-West credits: Dir: Regis Wargnier/ Sandrine Bonnaire, Oleg Menchikov, Catherine Deneuve/ 120min/ Drama, Foreign Language/ France/ In French with English subtitles/ Escape from Socialism, Democide/ a.k.a. Est – Ouest]
We live in an age when reality, including historical reality, is pretty much defined by film. In the mind of a public far more accustomed to watching movies than reading books, if it never appeared on film (or at least on television), it didn’t happen. That’s why this rare film about the hell that was Stalin’s Soviet Union is so important. By simply telling accurately one of the many incidents of Soviet crimes against humanity, it does much to inform the viewer of what that unhappy state was all about.
In particular, it relates the experience of Russian émigrés who voluntarily returned to the Soviet Union following WWII. Millions of Russians had fled to the West after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. However, during WWII, Russian participation in Allied victories against Nazi Germany stimulated renewed patriotic feeling among these émigrés. So, when Stalin invited them back (with amnesty) to help rebuild their home country, many thousands returned.
The character of their reception could not have been more unexpected. As soon as they arrived, most were either shot on the spot or sent to labor camps. Stalin didn’t like émigrés, as he suspected them of treason. Inviting them to come back was just a trap.
The family at the center of East-West represents the “lucky” ones among these émigrés. When they enter the Soviet Union, they don’t get executed or sent to the labor camps because the father is a doctor, and the Soviet state needs doctors. But even that will only take them so far; surviving, let alone any hope of escape, requires great sacrifice, touching personal losses that will surely melt the heart of even the most dedicated leftist.
In the background to these events, we get a feel for the everyday downside of Soviet life—unremitting poverty, sudden arrests and executions, and pervasive fear. Although fictional in some respects, this drama is based on a montage of actual experiences, the surviving stories of those who survived. It has a realistic flavor, making the most of on-location scenery in Eastern Europe and France (the émigrés had been living there) and employing actors and actresses from the same locations. Catherine Deneuve is the most recognizable of the players here, but it’s the story itself that is the real attraction.
That this film was made at all is something of a surprise. Thanks to the left-wing sympathies of most involved in the dramatic arts, the horrors of totalitarian socialism (apart from National Socialism) are almost untold in modern cinema. East-West is a rare drop of truth in a desert of calculated silence.