I run a small friendly film club called Cinephilia, in which we get together to watch a film and share our thoughts about it afterwards. This Post is my take on “Burnt By the Sun” 1994 by Nikita Mikhalkov for Cinephilia.
When it occurred to Stalin that the country needs its own national anthem rather than the Internationale, his favourite poet was neither from the proletarians, nor from the abject peasants. He referred to a young children’s storyteller and poet from noble family of Mikhalkovs and so Sergey Vladimirovich Mikhalkov, 29 years old at the time, enthusiastically wrote the lyrics that soon after, every Russian knew by heart for years to come. Stalin dead in 1953. The country started to eradicate whatever was related to the dictator including some specific words in the Mikhalkov’s lines. There was nothing remaining of what could be assumed of a revolutionary generation. the world had been changed, but for new lyrics to fill the gap in Russian National Anthem, Sergey Mikhalkov was selected for the second time. The new Anthem introduced in 1977. Rumours say that Sergey and his wife were serving KGB by introducing secret police members to foreign diplomats. In 1991, USSR vanished from the world’s map and so the Soviet Anthem retired. But ten years after, when Vladimir Putin decided to restore the old familiar music, 87 years old Sergey Mikhalkov was picked for the third time. During all these years, music score was the same but the poet had to write three distinctive lyrics and the content was changing entirely each time so like the country itself.
In 1994, when Sergey’s son, Nikita, was about to make the first post-Soviet-era pic to degrade the political legacy of his country, not much of what used to be his country had remained. He stemmed from a family known in Tsar period with lots of admirals, governors, and princes, but in spite of that, his father had an admirer like Stalin who made him a national figure. This controversial background continued by his parents’ service to KGB during destalinization and ended up earning 2nd class “Order For Service To Fatherland” by his father for his contribution to culture of Russia in 2003. Nikita knew each side. He knew that there is no angel/demon story. There is just one story; the story of the human being trapped in circumstances that he can’t fully comprehend and yet has to do something about; has to choose, act and move on.
“Burnt By The Sun” is the story of a senior Red Army officer, Sergei Petrovich Kotov, who respectfully lives in his dacha in 1936. His lovely family and the people from the collective farm surround him with warmness and joy and in respond, he serves them with his charm and fame. The cheerful atmosphere, which is the odd mixture of a peasanty life with an aristocratic eagerness, disturbed by Mitya, a senior Soviet political police officer and an old-known family friend, who comes to the house after more than 10 years of disappearance. He comes to arrest Kotov in the line of totalitarian tendencies of Stalin and his delusional suspects of counter-revolutionary movements. But Mitya has another reason for holding a grudge against Kotov; Kotov married his love of life, Maroussia, and he suspects that it is was all planned. They both know that this confrontation is inevitable but none of them would like to raise a tumult. And in the meanwhile, Kotov’s sweet young girl, Nadia, who loves his father, unknowingly escorts his father towards death.
Mikhalkov never directly depicts the past, and instead, by narrating the past events through different characters, he even deliberately leaves us in a fog. He makes it clear that what really happened in the past can not be fully captured because there are so many ways, so many viewpoints, to grasp the sense of past events. So the key is “what are we assuming as the past?” and this consumption, whatever it is, true or false, guides us to act at present time. And this eagerness to fill the gaps in the past, persuades the audience to precisely follow every bits and pieces and simultaneously feel the joy of life in the Russian culture.
Years after Mitya lost his dreams and just when in a climax of hopelessness the Russian roulette gives him another chance to go on, he comes back to serve his cold and tasty dish of revenge dressed with a hidden alive hatred. A hatred that can’t bring about anything but devastation, like the fireball that moves around while Mitya tells his story to the household in that relaxing afternoon; In that day, Mitya makes up an imaginary tale to include the searing pain of love and the sorrow of unwanted exile. An encrypted fairytale that everyone but Nadia could decipher. An uneasy silence covers all over. The wondering restless fireball which was searching every corner the whole time, hits a tree and sets it on fire. The same fire of hatred that burnt the whole Russia by its wariness and rage. At the end, Kotov, wounded and arrested, is in the way to his execution and as the postscript says, Maroussia also arrested later on. But did they, as Mitya expected, offer any comfort? The truth is that only the death can fade the fireball of angst just like it did only when Mitya embraced his death exactly the same way that Maroussia unsuccessfully did years before; Maroussia was lucky enough to forget warming up the bath before opening her vein, Mitya was not! And surrounded between the futile battle of power and wrath, people have no better fate than the lost man in the film who constantly seeking the right address, and at the end does not find anything but his death.
“Burnt in the sun” is a film full of masterful performances; Nadezhda Mikhalkova as Nadia who is also Nikita’s real daughter, fills the entire film with her sweetness and beauty. Nikita Mikhalkov as Kotov with his unique blend of patriotism, dignity and charm, is a true representative of the Russian passion for life. Ingeborga Dapkunaite as Maroussia portrays an innocent love-seeking woman who her worried eyes looks the other way to evade reality. And Oleg Menshikov as Mitya struggling with his paradoxical feelings, sets such a delicate trap that can not be forgotten.
In the Oscar ceremony, Mikhalkov said that there is no reality without humour. And as such, “Burnt …” is an intact depiction of a cruel reality that can not be confined to the geographical boundaries of Russia and its implication covers all the countries that are wrestling with totalitarianism. Or as Mikhlakov himself believes; “Burnt by the sun” dedicated to all who were burnt by the sun of the Revolution.