“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?