FOR THOSE WHO WERE BURNT BY THE SUN OF THE REVOLUTION.
In 1994, Russia, free of Soviet Communism, was still pondering its new place in the world. There was every reason to look back at the dictatorship and try to understand its evil system. A particularly prominent part of that reckoning was Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge of the 1930s, when hundreds of thousands of Russians were murdered by their government.
Fast-forward to 2020, a depressing time in Russia’s history when President Vladimir Putin has come up with a way to remain in power as long as he’s breathing, just like most of his predecessors in Russian history. Would this kind of film be allowed now that nationalism is poisoning society and a Stalin cult is growing?
Receiving a surprising visitor
In 1936, Sergei Petrovich Kotov (Nikita Mikhalkov) is enjoying life in the countryside together with his family. As a commander in the Soviet armed forces, and a veteran of previous wars, he is highly respected and makes sure that the Red Army doesn’t destroy the harvest at a nearby collective farm. But his family soon receive a visitor who’s much more complicated to handle than Red Army privates. Dimitri, familiarly known as Mitya (Oleg Menshikov), shows up at the dacha as a surprise. His relationship with Kotov and his wife Maroussia (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) is delicate – he was once her fiancé, and in the civil war he fought for the White Army.
Mitya charms the boisterous family, including Kotov and Maroussia’s young daughter Nadia (Nadezhda Mikhalkova)… but Maroussia is conflicted and doesn’t know what to make of his visit; after all, he disappeared in 1923 without a trace. Kotov understands early on that Mitya has a secret agenda.
Personal memories of Mikhalkov’s upbringing
Nikita Mikhalkov was a famous, lauded filmmaker already when he made this movie, which became his most famous and finally earned him an Oscar. When he decided to work with the Azerbaijani writer Rustam Ibragimbekov on this film, the duo incorporated different aspects – there’s criticism of Bolshevism and Stalin, but also lots of personal memories of Mikhalkov’s upbringing, as well as direct inspiration from his daughter Nadezhda. The title was borrowed from a song that became popular in the Soviet Union (also heard in the film), symbolizing Stalin himself; according to Ibragimbekov, the sun that lights up a few key sequences in a very special, fantastical way is meant to show how the personalized totalitarianism destroys everything it touches. An everlasting lesson for Russia, it would seem.
Some critics thought the film was too thin, but it became a major hit and it’s hard not to be entertained and moved by it. Mikhalkov himself is perfect as the charming and confident commander, truly his family’s patriarch, who realizes that he’s fallen out of favor with Moscow but still reckons he can talk his way out of it; his rapport with his daughter is obviously heartfelt and part of the film’s appeal. Menshikov is also fine as the former nobleman who’s had quite the journey; his sad background is revealed in a fairy tale that he tells Nadia. Mitya is irresistible in many ways but his anger toward Kotov is revealed when they are alone.
The portrait of the colorful aristocratic family in the dacha borrows a lot not only from Mikhalkov’s past but also Chekhov; Burnt by the Sun has a sense of humor and lovely rural locations, surrounded by birch trees, filmed in Nizhny Novgorod. The filmmakers capture the beauty, but balances it with a tangible menace in the shape of Mitya’s arrival, a sense of inevitability, like Jesus and the agony in the garden of Gethsemane.
Burnt by the Sun 1994-Russia-France. 135 min. Color. Produced by Nikita Mikhalkov, Michel Seydoux. Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov. Screenplay: Rustam Ibragimbekov, Nikita Mikhalkov. Cinematography: Vilen Kalyuta. Cast: Nikita Mikhalkov (Sergei Petrovich Kotov), Oleg Menshikov (Dimitri), Ingeborga Dapkunaite (Maroussia), Nadezhda Mikhalkova (Nadia), André Oumansky, Vyacheslav Tikhonov.
Trivia: Original title: Utomlennye solntsem. Followed by Burnt by the Sun 2 (2010).
Oscar: Best Foreign Language Film. Cannes: Grand Prize of the Jury.
Last word: “Nobody is either innocent or guilty in my film. Apparently, Stalin was the evil genius, but he was created by man’s hands. The scriptures say that man must not create idols to worship. People did not listen, and they created an idol, and they in turn became its victims. But people do not realize that they become victims because they themselves cannot imagine that they are the creators of their own destruction.” (Mikhalkov, Sony Pictures Classics)