The Washington Post
Stephen M. Norris

Russian directors finally enter the realm of the GULAG, provoking attention but not yet earning box office success. ...

One year ago, Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun 2. Exodus seemed like a sure thing for Russia's Oscar bid. The film, which debuted for Victory Day 2010, famously flopped, leading Mikhalkov to announce he did not want the committee to consider it. It too entered the world of the Stalinist camps. Mikhalkov's protagonist, General Kotov (played by the director), survived his death at the end of 1994's Oscar-winning Burnt by the Sun. He was instead sent to the camps. The film opens with the disgraced officer escaping from his camp after Nazi planes strafe it. Kotov eventually joins a penal battalion.

Burnt by the Sun 2 became a press sensation because it performed so poorly at the box office. At the same time, it earned more money than any other post-Soviet film that includes the GULAG. Uchitel's The Edge, by comparison, earned back $5.1 million of its $11 million budget.

Burnt by the Sun 2 and The Edge perfectly capture the state of the big-screen GULAG film. It is no longer possible to state that there is a significant absence – the two films garnered a great deal of press coverage. Uchitel's film, however, is not as much about the special settlers as it is about the trains Ignat races. The deported prisoners provide mere backdrop to the thrilling sequences featuring locomotives. The fact that Burnt by the Sun 2 opens in a camp is just a convenient way to explain Kotov's remarkable resurrection. It is more about Mikhalkov's belief that God returned to Russia during the war. The films employ blockbuster special effects on train races or battle sequences.

Both are in many ways as indifferent about the GULAG as the round table participants believe most Russians are. As a result, the new Russia still awaits its first truly good GULAG movie.