What happens if you take the abused son of a drunkard and a washerwoman, expose him to a smattering of revolutionary ideas, add more than a spoonful of paranoia and ruthless brutality, and allow him to rise to the position of absolute dictator of a country that encompasses hundreds of millions of people and one-sixth of the world's land surface area? The answer, of course, is about 10 millions deaths – possibly even more than attributable to Adolph Hitler. That was the legacy of Joseph Stalin, born Iosif Vissarionovich Djugashvili in 1879. One of the most bizarre aspects of Stalin's reign of terror was the purges that he initiated in 1935, through which he preemptively killed any and all who could challenge his authority – all the old Bolsheviks that had supported Lenin, all those who had helped him achieve power, and most of the country's top army officers. Djugashvili assumed the name "Stalin", meaning "man of steel", in 1913, and thus truly became the personification of a man without natural human sentiment.
The average American movie aficionado can probably rattle off a half a dozen or so films they've seen that deal with an aspect of the Holocaust, but how many films can you name that similarly expose or condemn the brutal handiwork of Stalin? Probably few, if any. Stalin remained in power until his death in 1953, and although Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin in 1956 and began the reassessment of Stalin's place in Soviet history, films overtly critical of Soviet history were suppressed until the recent fall of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Director Nikita Mikhalkov's film Burnt by the Sun is therefore a landmark film, providing the first post-communist, uncensored condemnation of Stalinist Russia to come out of Russia itself. It is also a brilliant, if underappreciated, work of art. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1995, though it is fashionable among film critics to dispute that selection in favor of one or another of that year's competitors. In my opinion, the Academy made the right choice, despite some very worthy competition. The selection also provided one of those quintessential Academy Award moments, when Mikhalkov accepted the award with his glowing daughter, Nadia, in tow, beaming at her all the while, and finally carrying her off stage on his shoulders. Burnt by the Sun also won a Special Jury Award at the Cannes Festival in 1994.
Burnt by the Sun is set in 1936 Stalinist Russia. In the opening scene, we meet an unidentified man in his thirties, handsome and suave, returning home to his small apartment at 6 a.m. after a late night out. We will later learn that his name is Dmitry Andreyevich (Oleg Menshikov). Dmitry (called Mitya for short) is met by a retainer. They engage in some conversation that is mostly meaningless, other than revealing that Mitya is well-educated, speaking both French and Russian. As they chat, Mitya ominously unloads the bullets from a pistol that he has taken from his jacket, stands the bullets up on the table, and then engages in a mock round of Russian-roulette, wincing as he pulls the trigger with the barrel of the gun to his head. Next, we see him talking on the phone, saying simply, "It's me. I'll do it." Apparently, this is a man who has just agreed to take on some nasty task. The opening credits now roll over a background of a quartet of musicians (guitar, violin, banjo, and vocalist) performing a Russian popular song on a small, open-air stage.
The story now shifts abruptly to a rural community and a sauna where a family of three is enjoying a steam bath together. The three are Colonel Sergei Petrovitch Kotov (Nikita Mikhalkov), a retired army officer and old hero of the Russian Revolution, his young wife Marusya Kotov (Ingeborga Dapkunayte), and their charming pixie-like daughter of about six, Nadia (Nadia Mikhalkov). We have now met all of the four main characters of this story. We see immediately that this is a loving family. The father-daughter and the husband-wife relationships are the most emphasized over the course of the film and are exceptionally warm and loving.
Suddenly, this family's quality time together is interrupted. It seems that the town is in a tizzy and Sergei, the town's leading figure, is the only one who can deal with the crisis. A Russian army unit on maneuvers is about to run over a valuable wheat field belonging to one of Sergei's neighbors. Sergei rides off to the rescue, literally – bareback on the messenger's horse. Arriving at the scene of the standoff between the villagers and the tanks, Sergei is greeted with reverence by his neighbors and, when he is finally recognized by the awestruck junior officers of the army unit as the great hero of the revolution, he has his way. He soon has the army unit heading off in another direction.
Sergei and his family live in a country summer home with an extended family of aunts and uncles and in-laws. They are an odd mix of bizarre characters, mainly contributing comic relief for this story and a general sense that we are among good and delightful people, despite an amusing assortment of idiosyncrasies. One woman in the family is obsessed with taking numerous medicines. One man drinks too much and flirts excessively. Another spends much of his time looking for opportunities to slap the female servants on the butt as they walk past, usually only succeeding in whacking his hand on a silver serving tray strategically placed in defense.
Colonel Kotov loves the Motherland, as one might expect of a retired career army officer, and is faithful to Stalin. In fact, a picture of the Colonel shaking hands with Stalin hangs proudly on the wall in his home. Little Nadia, as she plays something akin to hop-scotch, sings the following rhyme: "Burnt by the sun, as the crimson sea did run, I heard you say, my dove, that there would be no love."
In the town, a giant balloon featuring a huge portrait of Stalin is under construction. A marching band comes up the street past the Kotov home where Nadia hangs on the gate of the fence for a good view. Mixed in among the band is a bizarre-looking man in old clothes, with dark glasses, gray beard, cane, and an old brimmed hat. He stops and introduces himself to Nadia dramatically as the wizard from Maghreb. "Maghreb", he says, "is the land where summer Santas live." Perhaps summer Santas, instead of leaving presents, take things away. He staggers in through the gate and into Sergei's home, acting like a drunken lunatic and startling all of the extended family. He stomps his heel, prances around a bit, then sits at the piano – and suddenly begins to play admirably well. Marusya is the first to recognize what is happening. This is an old family friend, not seen for ten years, wearing a disguise. Sure enough, he removes the beard and hat with a flourish and it is Dmitry. All greet him warmly as a friend not seen for many years. Marusya introduces Mitya to her husband, but it is evident that the two have previously met.
Soon we come to understand that Mitya was once Marusya's lover. Dmitry amuses everybody from the piano. Marusya is clearly unsettled and distracted by Mitya's sudden return. She obviously still has feelings for him and he remarks, "Everything is as it used to be; you haven't changed at all." We learn later that when Mitya suddenly left the village ten years ago, Marusya, heartbroken, had waited a year for him and had attempted suicide, and only later had recovered and met and married Sergei.
It's midday now and a contingent from the family heads down to the river for a swim, including Sergei, Marusya, Nadia, and Mitya. Although Sergei feels apprehensive about the return of his wife's old lover, he is a thoughtful husband and wants to provide his wife with an opportunity to talk alone with her former lover. He tells Nadia, "They want to talk; they're old friends", and takes her out for a boat ride. The filming of the scene in which Sergei and his daughter drift down the river is stunningly beautiful and touching – as lovely a father-daughter relationship as you'll ever see depicted on film. Nadia says, at one moment, "You've no idea how good I feel with you. I adore you." Sergei replies, "Can we drift like this for all our lives?" "Yes, but with mother", says Nadia. "Of course, we wouldn't leave mother behind."
Back on the beach, Mitya initiates conversation with Marusya. She, by contrast, seems apprehensive about opening old wounds. Mitya, looking at Sergei as he walks off with Nadia to the boat, says to Marusya, aggressively, "Wide, muscular shoulders. Really, I understand." She turns and looks at him but says nothing. "A dazzling smile, his portrait hanging everywhere. And all that will collapse with one small flick." We are reminded that this is the man with a job to do. He adds, "Why aren't you asking me any questions?" She responds, "I don't want to know anymore."
Their awkward tête-à-tête is interrupted by the approach of the Civil Defense Regiment which conducts drills designed to prepare the Russian public for nerve gas attacks. Marusya, wanting to avoid the drill and, possibly, further awkwardness with Mitya as well, decides she'll go for a swim. Mitya, however, beats her to the river and jumps in fully clothed, to the surprise of all. With Marusya gazing out from a dock, he swims underwater a good distance and emerges behinds a clump of lily pads and weeds to elicit her concern. Sure enough, she dives in to look for him and he then swims up on her underwater. "Do you remember this place?", he asks. Then, quoting Hamlet, "Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears had left the flushing." "Not even that?", he asks. In their earlier days together, he had found her at the river, one day, in emotional distress over some problem with her mother and he had comforted her. They had ended up spending the night in the boatman's house. "I had a volume of Shakespeare's Hamlet and I read. And she cried", he reminds her. "Why are you telling me all this?", she asks. "I simply believed that if that life no longer existed for me, it no longer existed for anyone else and that everyone had vanished, but here you all are and nothing has changed for you. It's just that I'm not here. You've obliterated me with an eraser. Deleted." The parallel with Hamlet is clear here. Mitya is embittered and has made Marusya his Ophelia, but it is Mitya, not Marusya, who is playing the part of the eraser. Marusya has heard enough and exits from the water, volunteering to be a gas victim for the Civil Defense Team – which means being carried away on a stretcher. "I'm seriously wounded", she says, meaningfully.
Nadia and Sergei return and find the family's blanket, the shoes of both Mitya and Marusya, and Marusya's book abandoned. Sergei is now nervous with jealously, despite his best effort at self-control, though he is also determined to hide it from his daughter. He rushes off with Nadia to locate them as she complains about how fast he is walking. He reaches their home and heads immediately for the bedroom. He momentarily hears sounds that could be mistaken for love-making, only to find that it is two of the other family members shucking corn. In the meantime, Nadia has located her mother and Mitya at the piano playing a duet – still wearing the gas masks from the Civil Defense drill. One tune turns to another and finally into a spirited rendition of the can-can – significant because Mitya has spent time in France and speaks French while Sergei is all Russian, from the cap on his head to the boots on his feet. In an especially memorable scene, Marusya, Nadia, and all the ladies of the household start dancing wildly while Mitya bangs out the can-can frenetically, still wearing his gas mask. Sergei graciously tries to make the best of it but the situation is fraught with awkwardness for him. His young wife is caught up in youthful exuberance with her former lover and the whole family has been thrown back to an earlier time in their lives when Mitya was part of their household and Sergei was not. Finally, overwhelmed, Sergei removes himself to the dining room and instructs one of the maids to call the family to dinner. Mitya continues to play as all head off to dinner. Marusya momentarily slips back to bring him dry clothes and his shoes and finds that he has stripped bare. Giggling with embarrassment (and possibly a little excitement), she throws the clothes and shoes at him and runs out. Even at lunch, there is no escape for Sergei as all continue to reminisce about the good old days. Mitya, who has joined them for lunch, is even establishing a friendly relationship with Nadia, cutting in on Sergei's territory there as well.
Mitya now tells a detailed story to Nadia, sometimes acting it out with two of Nadia's dolls, with the entire family attending raptly. It is a story about a young man called away from his lover to serve his country. He gives the boy the name of Yatim, which is an obvious reorganization of the letters of "Mitya". It is a bitter story told in such a way as to ensure that all except Nadia will understand. He places the blame squarely on Sergei for sending himself off to war and separating him from Marusya. The point is certainly not lost on Marusya, who races from the room and up the stairs with her husband chasing close behind. She tries to shut him out of the bedroom, saying, "Stay there or I'll jump out the window." Sergei patiently reaches out to her, comforts her, and Marusya, recognizing the goodness that she, more than any other person, knows Sergei to possess, begins to recognize that Mitya's vicious story has been distorted by bitter regrets. Sergei and Marusya "make up" in a beautifully and discretely filmed lovemaking scene, with warm sunlight filtering in through the window behind. After, Marusya asks Sergei if it was he who sent Mitya away. Sergei tells her candidly that Mitya had been asked and had voluntarily agree to go to France as a spy and was chosen because he already spoke the language.
For a moment, we had almost believed Mitya's self-pitying story and that he might have cause for wanting retribution, but we have less excuse for being taken in than Marusya by Mitya's distorted reckoning of events. We know that he has come for a sinister purpose and that his earlier comments to Marusya were tainted with harshness. He has returned for some evil intent and appears to relish tormenting them in the process. We now learn that Mitya works for the secret police and we see the black sedan of the secret police parked nearby. Mitya, in this film, is the personification of Stalin. As Stalin was driven mad by paranoia leading ultimately to ruthless violence, Mitya has been consumed by his own guilt, having sold his soul to the satan Stalin, and is now about to crush the vestiges of the idyllic life that he could have chosen instead.
On a landing of the stairs, Mitya teaches Nadia to tap dance – another French influence. Marusya appears at the top of the stairs and Mitya sees from her demeanor that she and Sergei have reconciled and made love. He has failed to turn her against her husband. Mitya tells Nadia to ask Sergei to come down because he needs to talk with him. While waiting, he tells Nadia that a car will be coming to the house tonight. Sergei comes down to meet him and while Nadia hums and blocks her ears, we see Mitya delivering the coup-de-grace to Sergei – telling him that he is to be arrested by the secret police that evening. Sergei calmly acknowledges the news and asks Mitya not to say a word to anyone else about it. Mitya is shocked (and, likely, disappointed), having expected Sergei to exhibit some signs of dismay or panic. As Sergei returns to his bedroom, Mitya continues teaching Nadia tap dancing steps. At the top of the stairs, Sergei calls down to Nadia to ask uncle Mitya if he can do this, and then one-ups Mitya with a Russian folk dance. We understand which of these men is faithful to mother Russia.
Sergei spends his remaining hours with his family playing soccer. In one moment where he and Mitya are off in the woods tracking down an errant soccer ball, he debunks Mitya's bitter fairy tale and makes it clear to Mitya that he knows full well that Mitya voluntarily took on the job of destroying his former lover's family and that he has, in fact, come here to revel in the infliction. He knows that Mitya has worked in counter-espionage since 1923 and has fingered, among others, eight generals. Sergei courageously enjoys a few last hours with his wife and daughter while giving them no inkling that they are about to lose him. Shortly before he is to be driven off, a contingent of the townspeople – a platoon of youngsters belonging to a local chapter of the Revolutionary Guard – comes to take their oath before Comrade Kotov, their hero of the revolution. The black car arrives and Nadia, entirely oblivious to its real import for her life and her father's, is again hanging on the gate, thrilled to see the big shiny black sedan. She excitedly runs to tell uncle Mitya that his car has arrived. Nadia asks if she may have a ride. Nadia adorably sidles up to the car, makes herself pretty using her reflection on the shiny hood, then knocks sweetly on the window. In a scene epitomizing Beauty and the Beast, she informs one of the thugs that uncle Mitya has said that she can ride with them to the bend in the road and that she'll be doing the driving. There is crushing irony in the simple charm of Nadia juxtaposed against the heartless brutality of a Stalinist murder.
In their last moments together, Sergei tells Nadia that he won't be able to take her to the zoo the next day as he had promised because he has to work and asks her not to be angry with him. They then have a contest to see which of them can hum the longest, as he looks bravely and vacantly off into space. He hides his pain like a good soldier. Sergei reports to the car decked out in his full army attire bedecked in his medals and is seen off by his entire extended family, all still innocently unaware of what is happening. Nadia sits on the driver's lap and "drives" the car as far as the corner, where she is let out to run back to her house.
There is little reason to go into the specifics of what happens in the end. Obviously, this being Stalinist Russia, it's not going to end well. The film has effectively taught us just how brutal those murderous years were and the madness on which it was all based. In this film, we see the beauty of the lives that were crushed by Stalin – in Sergei and his loving family. We see, as well, the twisted psychology of Mitya, as a stand-in for Stalin. Just as Stalin killed all those who had most helped him, Mitya accepted an assignment that would require him to do unspeakable injury to a woman who had once loved him and whom he had already once abandoned and driven to near suicide. We see him reveling in his dirty deed while spinning a false justification. Finally, we are shown the heroic courage of a loyal soldier of Russia who, having devoted a lifetime to serving his motherland, is murdered by its leader.
Mikhalkov has done a marvelous job keeping a fundamentally heavy topic from becoming overbearing by interspersing Mitya's ruthless march to hateful infliction of pain with scenes of humor and family love. The humor is not so much laugh-out-loud gags as the kind that evokes quiet smiles. There is also relief in the lush pastoral scenery. Some critics complain that the early segments of the film, which establish the idyllic quality of the Kotov family and their lives, are ponderous, but I had no such feeling. Mikhalkov had to establish some genuine appreciation among viewers for the beauty of these people if we were later to understand what was sacrificed.
The cinematographer, Vilen Kaluta, has given us a film of utter radiance. Many scenes are bathed in warm sunlight – even the indoor lovemaking scene – where the sunlight streams softly through a window. The lighting is also perfect in the lovely scene where Sergei and Nadia drift down the river together. There's a recurrent fireball symbol that didn't make a whole lot of sense to me, other than the obvious association with the films title.
The performances in the four lead parts were all outstanding. The director, Mikhalkov, played the lead role himself, and Nadia was played by his real-life daughter. You couldn't ask for a sweeter little girl to grace a film or more genuine love between two characters. The minor character actors and actresses were adequate though unexceptional.