Political Film Society - Newsletter #72 - May 15, 2000

May 15, 2000


Immediately after World War II, unemployment in France was extremely high. In an effort to lure Russian émigrés back to the homeland, the Soviet Union promised employment, food, shelter, and amnesty, and some naïve Russians returned. The fate of one such Russian and his family is the focus of East-West, a 1999 French film under the title Est-Ouest directed by Régis Wargnier that began its Los Angeles run in April 2000. France and the Soviet Union were wartime allies, and the perception among some French leftists was that the Soviet Union offered a better life than capitalist worker exploitation in France. Accordingly, Alexei Golovin (played by Oleg Menshikov) took his wife Marie (played by Sandrine Bonnaire) and his son Seryozha (played by Ruben Tupiero as a boy and Erwan Baynaud as a teenager) in 1946. After arriving at the Ukrainian port of Odessa, however, Alexei was initially separated from his French wife. As a physician, he was seen as useful to the state; his wife, however, was accused of being a spy, her French passport was torn up, but she was then released after some rough treatment to her husband, who insisted on remaining with her. All the rest of the disembarking émigrés were shot as spies, though their only crime was that they were old. The family then was assigned to Kiev, where they were lodged in a tiny room within a small house. When they finally reached their assigned lodging, both parents broke down, realizing that they had made a big mistake in going to the Soviet Union. They vowed to escape. But how? The rest of the film deals with the way in which the two parents coped with harsh conditions while trying to bide their time to find a path of escape. For Alexei, the route was to curry favor with the authorities, including sleeping with strategically-placed women as needed, and to join the Communist Party.

Marie befriended and slept with a youthful swimming athlete, Sasha (played by Sergei Bodrov, Jr.), hoping that he would defect during an athletic competition in the West, so that he would alert authorities in France to her plight as a French citizen wanting to return home. Indeed, in order to free himself and to aid her, he swam several miles from Odessa to board a Turkish freighter, and thereafter he went to France. The inevitable rescue in the film was orchestrated by a leftist French performer Gabrielle Develay (played by Catherine Deneuve), who timed an escape while she was on tour in Sofia, Bulgaria, and Marie was simultaneously on tour with a Soviet army chorus, accompanied by Seryozha. Alexei was then punished -- sent to a Gulag in Sakhalin. However, he finally joined his family in France in 1987 by obtaining an exit visa during the era of Mikhail Gorbachëv, according to titles at the end. The movie is gripping but not based on a true story. As is common in escape films, the suspense keeps the eyes of filmviewers riveted on the screen. Nevertheless, we revisit many horrors of the Soviet system -- summary executions on mere suspicion, police brutality, middle-of-the-night arrests and subsequent disappearances, internal exile for suspected dissidents, KGB stoolpigeons, denouncements for being anti-Soviet on minor pretexts, the black market, squalid living conditions, unsafe working conditions, long hours of work, harsh treatment for minor infractions, alcoholism, and most of all lack of interpersonal civility. For those nostalgic for the days when the Soviet government provided everyone employment, food, and shelter, East-West is an effective antidote. For Wargnier, who won a Political Film Society award for his Indochine in 1993, "East-West is the movement, the breath of life, from one person to another . . . Like a torch that is passed on, everyone taking care that it isn't put out but ready to give it up as long as they know that it burns in someone else's heart." MH