Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Burnt by the Sun (1994)

“Die in silence.”

The biggest danger facing any revolutionary is found within the literal meaning of the word itself:  to revolve is to go around in a complete circle.  The Young Turks write their manifestos and march out against the enemy with slogans in their heads and bayonets on their rifles.  By the time the violent circle closes again, the Young Turks have become the Old Guard.  If the revolution was successful, which it rarely is, the cycle ends and the survivors get to retire to the country and smile benignly at their photographs on the walls of government buildings and schoolhouses.  If the revolution falters, the wheels grind again.  The Old Guard, having nowhere to go but the past, are trampled under the slogans and bayonets of a new wave of Young Turks unencumbered by nostalgia.  Some old revolutionaries, like Nicolas Rubashov in Arthur Koestler’s masterpiece Darkness at Noon, appreciate the historical irony of their victimization.  Others, like the central figure in Nikita Mikhalkov’s film Burnt by the Sun (1994), are caught by surprise.

One doesn’t get to see Russian films much these days.  In the early years of cinema, the Soviet Union launched a second, artistic revolution with the works of such directors as Dziga Vertov, V.I. Pudovkin, Alexander Dovzhenko, and Sergei Eisenstein.  What happened to that cinematic revolution?  When was the last time you saw any Russian film, never mind a great one?  Did Stalinist gulags and stupefying documentaries on the glories of industrialization freeze the heart out of Soviet cinema?  Or did the Cold War mean that audiences in North America simply didn’t get to see great work being produced by the Siberian Satan?  More of the former than the latter, I expect. Two glaring exceptions to the Soviet eclipse were Mikhalkov, a one‑man Soviet film industry with 37 movies to his credit as director (and dozens of others as author, actor, producer, and technician), and that mystery‑wrapped‑in‑an‑enigma, Andrei Tarkovsky.  Tarkovsky’s Solaris will be the subject of next month’s Seldom Scene.  This month we’ll continue on with Nikita Mikhalkov’s moving tribute to those who, in his words, were “burnt by the sun of the Revolution.”

At first, the protagonist of Mikhalkov’s film, Colonel Serguei Petrovich Kotov (played by Mikhalkov himself, who also wrote and produced) doesn’t seem much like a victim.  The time is 1936.  Kotov is living in a rambling dacha in the countryside with his young wife, Maroussia (Ingeborga Dapkunaiete), his daughter, Nadia, and a collection of eccentric relatives.  With his square build and robust moustache (“a life‑affirming Zorba the walrus”), he looks every inch the heroic old warrior at peace with his past.  Kotov has got Stalin’s personal phone number, and he’s still enough of a legend to younger Russians that he can ride out and single‑handedly stop a battalion of Russian tanks on maneuver from trampling a nearby village’s crops.  His six‑year‑old daughter (played by Mikhalkov’s own daughter, Nadezhda) is a radiant being who in another place or time than Russia in 1936 would guarantee any story a happy ending.  Nadia Mikhalkov is the finest young actress I’ve seen since Anna Paquin in The Piano.  One reviewer quite rightly compared the on‑screen rapport between fictional/real father and daughter to the charm of Astaire and Rogers.

Herewith a gentle warning for anyone out there unprepared to swallow a cinematic bitter pill:  turn off your VCR after the first 100 minutes or so of Burnt by the Sun.  That’s just after the love scene between Kotov and Maroussia.   You can then go to bed enjoying the same blissful state Kotov’s in, knowing that the world shines with its own natural beauty and love’s a shelter from all storms.

And so it does and so it is.  Until the 100 minutes are up. Then the past comes calling.  This time the sins of the fathers take on the form of an apparently genial young man named Dmitri (Oleg Menshikov).  This is the same young man we saw at the very beginning of the movie, playing a very ungenial game of Russian roulette alone in his Moscow apartment   It’s also the same young man who was once Maroussia’s lover, and whose sudden disappearance from her life had driven her towards suicide.  With Dmitri’s resurfacing, Kotov’s bad karma announces that it’s not about to wait for his next life to claim its due.

In early 1936, Josef Stalin was setting the stage for five years of bloody purges of old Bolshevik leaders, Red Army commanders, and just about anyone with a university degree.  Most were briefly imprisoned, then shot.  But the centerpieces of the purges were a series of show trials, in which the broken victims of psycho‑physical torture were called forward to confess to any crimes their tormentors deemed worthy of summary execution.  Victims (“carrion which is polluting the pure bracing air of the Soviets…liars and clowns, insignificant pygmies”) were accused of betraying the Revolution, plotting to kill Stalin or his supporters, and/or supporting the exiled revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky. Here was the birthplace of that infamous catchphrase, “an enemy of the people.” (And where have we heard that one recently?)  In the most savage of ironies, many of Stalin’s newly‑appointed executioners had been part of the same Tsarist or White Guard forces the original revolution had destroyed.  Unfortunately for Kotov, Dmitri has hitched his star to the lethal New Order.

Not all who died in Stalin’s purges were innocent; the revolution left a lot of blood on a lot of hands.    Men like Colonel Kotov didn’t earn their revolutionary medals through diplomacy.  It had been on his orders that Dmitri had been forced to abandon Maroussia for the sake of clandestine Party work abroad.   Forced to go?  Perhaps.  Kotov might have been playing David to Maroussia’s Bathsheba.  Or perhaps Dmitri had just been an ambitious young man who abandoned his lover in the name of naked self‑interest?  Only the children are without guilt.

I’m speaking now of the end of the film.  Those of you who choose to watch just those kinder first 100 minutes of Burnt by the Sun will remember other things:  the film’s compassion, humor, and touches of magic realism.  There is the aunt who’s fond of every form of medical quackery that fashion carries her way.  There are the irrepressible Party stalwarts running around the countryside breaking up picnics with spontaneous poison gas mask drills. There is the luckless truck-driver trying to deliver furniture to a village whose name was wiped out when his wife washed the shirt that had the address.  There is the fireball which appears and disappears as a kind of mute portent.  You’ll recall the sun‑drenched dacha and the cinematography of verdant river valleys and fields, unoccluded by the dark shadows of the final tragedies.  At the 100‑minute mark, Burnt by the Sun is a Sunday in the Country.

By the end, it’s Sunday Bloody Sunday.


Looking Back & Second Thoughts

Burnt by the Sun was for 1994 what Parasite was for 2019—an award-winning, hard-hitting foreign film that was funny, until it wasn’t.  Just as Parasite put a human face on the tensions between social classes, Burnt by the Sun put a human face on the Stalinist terrors.  One minute we’re looking at a bucolic Russian scene, a miniature Arcadia peopled by eccentrics and archetypes, and the next minute we’re staring down a black hole of old hatreds and festering ideologies.  The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children with a vengeance.  Dear old dad has made deals with the devil.

It’s one of the many ironies of the film that a single broken bottle on a beach is a more lethal portent than an entire phalanx of tanks.  We can’t help but laugh at young Leninist Pioneers with their morning calisthenics and farcical gas attack drills, until we recall that the same youthful energies & patriotic fervor were honed to homicidal zeal in the Hitler Youth movement.  A Storming-of-the-Bastille Park and a giant Stalinist Balloon are risible, yet as the later rises up from the fields like a plague ship an innocent man dies uselessly.  In the end, it might all be quite unbearable if it weren’t for the radiant performance of Nadezhda Mikhalkova (the director’s daughter) as Nadya.  An impish angel, she’s a kind of anti-Mephistopheles, leading us all towards love & joy even as the shadows fall.

Director and leading actor Nikita Mikhalkov has made over 40 films, including a sequel to Burnt by the Sun in 2010.  His last film was in 2011.  The biographical information included on the Imdb website is fascinating and well worth reading.  Although, he’s unquestionably one of Russia’s most important film directors, some of his comments over the years have not been kind.  A recent remark, about how much he envies Harvey Weinstein for his womanizing (included at the end of the Imdb profile), is unlikely to win Mikhalkov many friends in the West.  Nor is his close friendship with Vladimir Putin.  Yet this is the same man who donated 14 million rubles of his own money to support veterans & retired actors.  Mikhalkov is the younger brother of director Andrey Konchalovsky, whose 1985 Runaway Train was one of first films I reviewed for Seldom Scene.

Nadezhda Mikhalkova has continued to work as an actress to the present day (2020), although infrequently in film.  Lithuanian actress Ingeborga Dapkunaiete has had a strong career in cinema, both in Russian films and in the Western film industry (Mission: Impossible, Red Sparrow, Hannibal Rising; Seven Years in Tibet), with 76 credits on Imdb.  Oleg Menshikov has also continued his film career, and is currently the artistic director of the Yermolova Theatre in Moscow.  Menshikov appeared in both sequels to Burnt by the Sun.

P.S.  I still don’t get the whole fireball thing.  Is this just the “burnt by the sun of the Revolution” metaphor made literal?  It hardly seems necessary, if it is.  Am I missing something?

Movie Information

Genre: History | Drama
Director: Nikita Mikhalkov
Actors: Nikita Mikhalkov, Oleg Menshikov, Ingeborga Dapkunaiete, Nedezhda Mikhalkova
Year: 1994
Original Review: July 1998


100 Most Overrated/Underrated Films

Compiled by Joe Carter in 2009.  Mr. Carter is Web Editor of the First Things website, which bills itself as “America’s Most Influential Journal of Religion & Public Life.”  I haven’t a clue what critical credentials Mr. Carter might be in possession of to motive him to put together this annotated list, but it makes for worthwhile browsing.  We’d have some lively discussion, because I disagree with him a good deal of the time.  From his own introduction:

“That movie was totally overrated. Now if you want to see a really worthwhile flick you should see . . . ” Because self-serious film buffs (like me) say this type of thing all the time, I thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to actually list 50 of the most overrated and 50 of the most underrated films of all time.

For today’s argument we’ll consider an overrated film to be anything that is undeserving of the critical or popular praise they receive (even if it was a good movie). The underrated films should all be examples of excellent cinema that are obviously superior (or at least slightly more worthy) than the corresponding “overrated” film with which they share a category. The categories, which range from the obvious to the just plain odd, are intended to cover a broad selection of interests….These also don’t have to be your favorite films (many of my favorites don’t make the list) or films that no one has ever heard of. Even classic movies can be considered underrated if they’ve fallen out of favor with modern audiences.”

50 most underrated films of all time

Fitting nicely with the website above, this 2014 article comes courtesy of Mike McCahill at the Telegraph.  Mr. McCahill is the Telegraph’s film reviewer.  As the site summary says, “Read our guide to the 50 most underrated films of all time. Some bombed, some were panned, and some sank without trace, but they all deserve a second chance.”  In first, second, and third place, respectively, are The Gigolos, Resurrected, and Meet the Applegates.  There’s something to be learned here.


A relatively low-cost streaming service (currently $4.95/month).  From the website:

“Watch the Best of World Cinema. Filmatique streams acclaimed art-house and festival films—bold and daring works from filmmakers working in the vanguard of cinema.
Filmatique releases one new film per week, alongside exclusive filmmaker interviews and scholarly essays, carving out a space of discourse and visibility around often underseen films.”             

An old, obscene genre becomes a new platform for artistic film

A article by Gary M. Kramer on the Roman Porno Reboot Project.  If that sounds like the title of a dubious Japanese anime film, you’re not far off.  From the article:

[These “roman porno” films were low-budget, approximately 80-minute-long films often shot in a week. They were required to feature nudity or sex scenes approximately every 10-15 minutes. The name “roman” came from either “romance,” or the French word for novel. The term “porno” in the title was basically referring to the very soft-core variety of the genre — explicit sexual imagery, even pubic hair, was forbidden by the censor.

They were wildly successful both with critics and audiences. Were they socially relevant or subversive at the time? It’s likely.]

I’m not familiar with any of the films Mr. Kramer mentions.  What I’ve seen of sex in Japanese cinema, and in certain manga & anime, hasn’t been much of a turn-on.  In the Realm of the Senses (1976) wasn’t exactly Barbarella or EmmanuelleUrotsukidooji: Legend of the Overfiend (1989) wasn’t Betty Boop.  Going on my limited experience of Japanese erotic films, I’d have to conclude that sex just isn’t that much fun.  And even less so for women than for men.  But maybe I’m just squeamish or culturally blinkered.  I’ll update this column if I ever get around to watching Dawn of the Felines, Wet Woman in the Wind, or Aroused by Gymnopédies.  It might be a while….

Films Worth Talking About:

Four Weddings and a Funeral, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? In the Name of the Father, Minna Tannenbaum, Shadowlands, Backbeat, Serial Mom, The Crow, Speed, Pulp Fiction, Three Colors: Red, Queen Margot, Little Buddha, Forrest Gump, True Lies, The Lion King, Quiz Show, Ed Wood, Bullets over Broadway, Heavenly Creatures, Le Fils préféré, [The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert], Immortal Beloved, The Madness of King George, The Last Seduction, The Mask, Wolf, Nell, The Shawshank Redemption, Disclosure, The Client, Nobody’s Fool, Dance Me Outside

The Bigger Picture

FilmsBurnt by the Sun 2 (2010), Citadel (Utomlennye Solntsem, 2011), The Cold Summer of 1953 (1988), Parasite (2019)


Books:  Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon; Stephen Kotkin, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler & Stalin: Paradoxes of Power; Oleg V. Khlevniuk, Stalin

The Word on the Street

Having read all of the negative commentaries on this film, I would first like to point out that severely criticising the period of Soviet history in which Utoml’ennye Solntsem takes place, and in that effort, condemning the people of that era such as are portrayed in this film as being entirely culpable for their actions, is all very well and good to do from hindsight, and from the safety of a soft computer chair in the modern-day West. Because of course, no one is tortured today in the West for a casual remark against the reigning despot; nor do we live under the threat that our families may be sent off to Siberia as one of the consequences of our actions, great or trivial. I myself can’t say what I would have been willing to do under the circumstances that existed during the time of the Soviet purges, whom I would have betrayed just to survive, or if I would have the courage to make some kind of moral, social, or political stand, and if I think I could have? Well,if we all admit it to ourselves, we know that torture will break any man eventually… In watching this film, I think that we should keep in mind that we are not necessarily here to judge but to take the director’s journey to another time and place: and yet we should still be able to remember and respect the fact that what we are seeing here is a piece of the history that lies beneath the modern day Russia. This history is a shadow that has cast its pall over the lives of every Soviet citizen since then, including Mikhalkov. The fear of the purges that swept over the Soviet Union during the 1930’s and 40’s is a kind of fear that will fade, but never die away entirely. So, what can be the point in overly criticising Mikhalkov or any one in the former USSR for surviving under the system as it was before glasnost, knowing what they knew of the state and the full extent of what it could do and had already done (Stalin’s purges may even have claimed 20-40 million lives)?…. the truth lingers behind this tale, the truth of a time which was a nightmare few of us can imagine… or would want to. In my opinion, the great thing about this film is that it throws us back for a while into that era and portrays what was good about it, what remains good, despite all obstacles; the film is a tale of love that survives the most extreme of human conditions. It is fascinating and compelling, brave and tender, horrifying, and real.  [Caledonia Twin #1]

The French title for the movie was “Deceitful Sun”, and I find it more appropriate. Although the film bathes in quiet sunlight, it deals with one of the darkest eras of Russian/Soviet history : Stalinism. In the early 1930’s, Stalin decided to eliminate much of the newly arisen communist elite whom he did not trust anymore, and hired former enemies of communism, or half-criminals, to eradicate his own official allies. Thus, colonel Kotov remains self-righteous and sure of himself almost until the end because he simply cannot believe that Stalin will not protect him.   [francheval]

A beautiful film. It amazingly combines the gentle, romantic tragi-comedy of Chekhov or Turgenev with one of the most effective exposes seen on screen of the corruption and underlying evil of the Stalinist era – the film takes place at the height of the Stalinist purges.   [gray4]

It’s one of the best pictures I’ve ever seen. I watch it at least once a year. Unfortunately for non-Russian viewers, subtitles are quite pale; they hardly deliver one tenth of the juicy Russian dialogues and don’t let Western viewers to appreciate the beauty of the movie in its entirety.   [asalen]

Lauded in the West on its release in the heady mid-90s, this is, in truth, a deeply flawed and thinly veiled apologia for Mikhalkov’s former complicity with the Communist regime. He does not merely sympathise with the beguiled Kotov. He literally identifies with a character imbued, for good measure, with every honest manly virtue. In a scene of genuine tenderness, Kotov drifts downriver with his young daughter (sparklingly played by the actor/director’s own child), extolling the promise of the socialist future. The ironies here are truly double-edged. Kotov’s elegy is Mikhalkov’s confused self-exculpation. The vision was a noble one. The Old Bolsheviks meant well. (Never mind that, in reality, Dzerzhinsky’s torturers were busy from day one.) It was Stalin’s Terror that ruined it all. You mustn’t tar every Party member with the same brush.
So an unwholesome air of self-justification, self-delusion and self-pity pervades the film, despite – or rather, precisely because of – its claims to truthfulness (manifested in the shockingly brutal ending, however manipulative) and its unfailing (and deadening) tastefulness. Mikhalkov merely exchanges the orthodoxies of the Brezhnev/Andropov era for those of Glasnost – itself (unfortunately for so practised a time-server) already old hat by 1994. In the good old days, the director was a leading exponent of the Soviet Union’s answer to Merchant Ivory, purveying easy-on-the-eye pre-1917 languor (never forgetting – lest anyone should get the wrong idea – to point up the decadence). He serves up much the same dish here, spiced with some safe historical critique and a twist of something extra. The flip side of the film’s Russophilia (Kotov’s easy earthiness; all that wheat) is a curious xenophobia (cosmopolitan Mitya is NKVD). The odd result is that Stalin’s supposed betrayal of the Leninist ideal is insidiously equated with the alien, the intellectual and the “bourgeois”. Kotov swears like a trooper, enjoys a game of soccer and playfully gooses the maid; whereas Judas Mitya quotes Shakespeare in the original, plays Chopin rather well and converses with his manservant in polished French.

It is, of course, grossly unfair to mention in this context that Mikhalkov’s father penned the USSR’s national anthem. But then again – in the light of this film’s insidious special pleading, and its disquieting taint of moral and historical dishonesty – it is hard to resist doing so.   [pzm]

The cinematography by Vilen Kalyuta and the musical score by Eduard Artemyev enhance the film immeasurably.   [gradyharp]

“Burnt by the Sun” – the last significant film by Nikita Mikhalkov. A masterfully filmed story of the heroic rise and tragic fall of a famous Soviet general in the late 30s of the 19th century. As a result of such treacherous actions of the NKVD, the Red Army was left without the best commanders on the eve of World War II.   [Dmitri-batuev]

The cold analysis of the film led the critics to a statement that the director idealizes Kotov by hiding his own work from the 20’s. He never gives information about Kotov’s dedication to the terror of which he has been one of the creators. There is a lot of truth in there, but the film is not a historical debate. He doesn’t say who is good or who should be forsaken (the phrases from the film state: “we were all guilty” or “can you forsake people whose faith, hope and love were stolen?”). He tries to catch a single situation from a summer of 1936. The situation from a very well-known house. He neither gives a prologue to that situation nor he is building his characters’ life backwards. Those empty spaces of the characters’ life are left for the audience to think about. The symbolic meaning of the round thunder that crawls around the house being a untouchable witness of the happenings is also left for the audience’s imagination.   [Kuba_D]