(Burnt by the Sun)
Director: Nikita Mikhalkov
Production: Studio "Tri T"/Camera One. Color, 35mm; running time: 152 mins. Released 1994. Filmed in Russia in 1992.
Producers: Nikita Mikhalkov, Michel Seydoux; screenplay: Nikita Mikhaklov, Roustam Ibraguimbekov, based on an original story by Mikhalkov; photography: Vilen Kaluta; editor: Enzo Meniconi; sound: Jean Umansky; music: Eduard Artemyev; art direction and set decoration: Vladimir Aronin, Alexandre Samulekine; costumes: Natalya Ivanova.
Cast: Oleg Menchikov (Dimitri); Nikita Mikhalkov (Sergei Kotov); Ingeborga Dapkounaite (Marussya); Nadia Mikhalkov (Nadya); Viatcheslav Tikhonov (Vsevolod); Svetlana Kriutchkova (Mokhava); Vladimir Ilyine (Kirik); Andre Oumansky (Philippe); Alla Kazanskaya; Nina Arkhipova; Avangard Leontiev; Inna Ulianova; Lyubov Rudnieva.
Awards: Co-winner, Jury Prize, Cannes Film Festival, 1994; Oscar for Best Foreign Film, 1994.
Borelli, Sauro, Nikita Mikhalkov, Firenze, 1981.
Nikita Mikhalkov: Sbornik, Moscow, 1989.
Peigne-Giuly, A., "Quelques jours d'un tournage de Mikhalkov," in Cahiers du Cinema (Paris), February 1994.
Maslin, Janet, "A Dark Comedy Wins at Cannes," in The New YorkTimes, 24 May 1994.
Murat, Pierre, "Soleil trompeur/Un Russe n'a jamais connu de loi," in Télérama, #2329, 31 August 1994.
Stanley, Alessandra, "Surviving and Disturbing in Moscow," in TheNew York Times, 21 March 1995.
Lipman, M., "Russians Beam over Sun's Oscar," in The WashingtonPost, 29 March 1995.
Filipov, David, "Post-Soviet Screen Struggle," in Boston Globe, 12 April 1995.
Thomas, Kevin, "Welcome Rays from Sun," in Los Angeles Times, 22 April 1995.
Leydon, Joe, "From Stalin to Oscar," in Boston Globe, 14 May 1995.
Neff, R., "Mikhalkov Recalls Stalin Era with Oscar-Winning Drama," in Film Journal, vol. 98, June 1995.
Bonet, P., "Warmed by the Oscar," in World Press Review (Marion, Ohio), July 1995.
Glaessner, Verina, "Blind Faith," in Sight and Sound (London), vol. 6, no. 1, January 1996.
* * *
Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun is at once a heartfelt and heartbreaking drama. It is heartfelt as a depiction of a loving family, and specifically a sweet relationship between a father and daughter. It is heartbreaking because that relationship is destined to be intruded upon by the odious spectre of political hypocrisy within the confines of post-revolutionary, Stalin-ruled Russia.
In Burnt by the Sun, yesterday's revolutionary, whose role was so meaningful in overthrowing a ruling class, is depicted as today's undesirable: a man whose crime is having become "middle class," and who is separated from his family and swiftly executed without being afforded the opportunity of self-defense.
The time is the mid-1930s, and Mikhalkov tells the story of Sergei Kotov (played by the filmmaker), one of the leaders and heroes of the Russian Revolution. Sergei is a middle-aged man who resides in the country with his family, including his wife, Marussya (Ingeborga Dapkounaite), and precocious six-year-old daughter, Nadya (played by Mikhalkov's real-life offspring). Sergei has been a confidante of Stalin, and has the well-earned respect of his fellow citizens. He is a true revolutionary, who is keenly aware of the purpose and meaning of revolution: to better the lives of the common people. He tells Nadya that the soles of his feet are "like shoe leather" and "as hard and round as rocks"; they are souvenirs from his years as a young revolutionary. His hope is that his daughter will have comfortable shoes and soft socks, and will travel about in cars, trains, airplanes. What he wants for her is what he wants for all Russian children: a better future, in which all citizens can "run, without having to flee." "We're building up Soviet power for that," he says.
Onto the scene comes Dmitri (Oleg Menchikov), now a member of Stalin's "political police," who is an old friend of the family (as well as the former lover of Marussya). His presence is welcomed, and he befriends little Nadya (who soon begins calling him "Uncle Mitya"). But Dmitri is not paying a social visit. Symbolically, he arrives wearing a disguise, causes comical chaos in the household, and then goes about sitting in Sergei's chair. When Nadya points this out, Dmitri does not excuse himself and move. Rather, he remains in the chair, gently rocking in it with a self-satisfied look on his face.
Dmitri has come to arrest Sergei. The revolutionary's sin is that he and his family are living a "middle-class" life. Logically, if oppressed people are freed by revolution, shouldn't one of the benefits of that liberation be the opportunity to live in peace and comfort with one's loved ones? In Stalinist Russia, however, logic no longer exists. A new kind of oppression has replaced the old. Sergei is told by Dmitri that he soon will be signing a confession that he is a spy for the Germans and Japanese, that he is a terrorist, that he has wanted to murder Stalin. If he declines, he will be reminded that he has a wife and daughter. . . .
In the film's epilogue, we are informed that "Comrade Kotov" was shot on 12 April 1936, and "rehabilitated posthumously" twenty years later. But the fates of Marussya and Nadya are equally heartbreaking. Marussya was "sentenced to ten years of deprivation of freedom," and "died in a camp in 1940." Nadya was arrested with her mother, and was "permanently rehabilitated" in 1956. A telling, haunting question lingers during the film's final credit roll: from what have these three been rehabilitated? The sad reality is that Sergei's purpose for helping lead a revolution has been cheapened, and twisted beyond repair. Fittingly, Mikhalkov dedicates his film to "everyone who was burnt by the sun of Revolution."
From its opening to closing scenes, Burnt by the Sun is loaded with images depicting the callous disregard on the part of the Soviet power structure toward the lives of ordinary citizens. As the film begins, tanks mindlessly roll through the countryside disrupting the work of farmers. It is declared that "the tanks are ruining the wheat," and the point is that the military, representing those in power, are disturbing the peasants—those who were supposed to have benefitted from the revolution—for no legitimate purpose. All that has happened is that one equally repressive ruling order has replaced another.
At the finale, as Dmitri and his fellow secret policemen drive off with Sergei, they come upon a peasant who has lost his way and run out of gas, and whose vehicle is blocking the road. This luckless fellow requests help, and ends up being shot for his trouble. His situation, and his fate, symbolize the state of post-revolutionary Russia: a nation lost and disoriented, where ordinary citizens who have committed no crime may be murdered at the whim of a secret policeman.
Mikhalkov lays the blame for the failure of the revolution squarely at the feet of Stalin. As the car drives off, an overly large banner of the ruler is set into the air. It quickly covers the sky, hovering over the corpse of the peasant and the image of Sergei speeding away to his doom.