Let’s face it. Josef Stalin was not a nice man. His interpretation of Marxism produced a regime that was brutal, paranoid and elitist, and killed more people than Pol Pot and Hitler combined. It also preyed on Russia’s sense of patriotism by seducing thousands of displaced emigrants back into the country and betraying them.
It is this return to the Motherland which Régis Wargnier’s East-West focuses on. After World War II, Stalin invited Russians in exile back home, only to execute the majority of them and keep the rest as virtual prisoners of the state. The film follows Alexeï (Oleg Menshikov), a Russian doctor living in France, and his French wife, Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire) as they seize the opportunity to start a new life in the Soviet Union. Upon arrival Alexeï is seen as a valuable asset (a good doctor is hard to find), while Marie is treated with suspicion and immediately grilled. Ninety per cent of emigrants returning to Russia are Imperialist spies, says her Gestapo-like interrogator.
After the liberation of France, Marie does not respond well to her new life of oppression and hardship. She thinks getting out will simply be a matter of going to the French embassy and getting a ticket home. Alexeï is more furtive and is aware of their precarious situation: if you ask to go, you condemn the state, he tells her. Marie has the kind of strong-willed independence that would be safe enough and effective in the West, but such behaviour in Stalinist Russia is suicidal.
East-West is part tortured love story and part political thriller, directed with Wargnier’s trademark melodramatic excess (see Indochine, 1991). The rocky times the couple encounter are due to Marie’s reluctance to accept the regime and Alexeï’s refusal to talk about the situation. In fact, the good doctor appears to have become an authentic comrade, as he integrates himself into the system and works his way up the ranks of the Communist regime. But he is working on a way out from the inside, causing the state to trust him before he makes his move and is motivated by an undying love for Marie. So you get the picture.
Despite the grand nature of the story, Wargnier decides to focus on the microcosm of Alexeï and Marie’s relationship at the expense of the bigger picture. Stalin’s emigrant scam is one of the most unsettling and untold tales of the regime’s many atrocities, and it seems a shame to see it represented in such a snapshot. East-West goes some way towards capturing the bleakness and claustrophobia of post-war Russia – disappearances in the night, squalid living conditions, and the decadent lifestyle of the rulers – but is soaked through with sentimentality and too heavy-handed with its political message.