The Japan Times
Kaoshi Shoji

Little letup in the theater of war

A college friend of mine had gone from judo instructor to Self-Defense Force soldier, and when I asked him what triggered his move, he replied that in modern-day Japan, the SDF was the quickest way to attaining inner calm and career satisfaction. "It's not like I actually have to fight in a war," he said. "This way, it's all about bravery with no complicated strings attached."

I remember thinking how single-minded and smart this guy was; from what we've seen of the SDF recently, it certainly is about heroism without the moral complexities of combat and destruction. But no such luck is in store for the professional military man – and this truth has deafening reverberations in the case of Kotov, an aged private in the Soviet Army circa 1944 in Burnt by the Sun 2. Exodus.

Its predecessor, Burnt by the Sun, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film 16 years ago – and it's rumored that filmmaker/actor Nikita Mikhalkov waited all these years to make the sequel because he wished to give everyone in the cast, including himself, the opportunity to age and mature naturally (most of the original cast have reassembled for the project, which is a feat in itself).

Those familiar with Burnt by the Sun will recall then-6-year-old Nadia, whose presence charged the film with a cliched but very effective prewar innocence. In Exodus, she has grown into a formidable woman and a trained nurse (played by the director's own daughter, Nadezhda Mikhalkova). Nadia's dad, Kotov (Mikhalkov himself), has gone from a wealthy and privileged colonel in the Soviet military to a lowly private on the front lines against the Nazi invasion.

Back in 1936, Kotov had been at the peak of professional success and personal happiness, vacationing with his beautiful wife, Marusya (Ingeborga Dapkunayte), and their daughter at their summer house. The serpent in their garden had been cousin Dmitri (Oleg Menshikov) – a Stalin henchman nursing a grudge against Kotov for stealing his former lover. Sent by Stalin to arrest and execute the liberal-minded Kotov, Dmitri goes about the evil deed with grim relish, and Nadia's father is suddenly snatched from her hands and thrown in a death camp for political prisoners.

Exodus opens on a war-torn Soviet Union in 1943 – and once again, Stalin calls in Dmitri. The dictator suspects Kotov is alive, and orders Dmitri to unearth his nemesis, wherever he may be.

Kotov, however, is not to be found so easily. Up to his neck in filth and muck, he's digging and building a fort on the very front lines in the war against Germany, while all over the USSR, soldiers and civilians are struck down like bowling pins, left to rot in the dirt or raped, pillaged and burned to ashes.

During World War II, the Soviet Union racked up the largest number of casualties on the planet – close to 30 million people dead. It's difficult to wrap the brain around such a fact, especially when you consider that in Japan, that same figure came to "only" 3.2 million.

What keeps father and daughter going in Exodus is the slim but stubborn hope that they will see each other again. But Mikhalkov puts every obstacle in their way: Nadia's Red Cross ship is bombed at sea by the Nazis, and most of the passengers (consisting of children, the wounded and elderly) sink into the freezing water. Nadia is saved by a priest and baptized while clinging to the ship's mast. Kotov, for his part, digs mud, dodges bombs and catches a few minutes of rest leaning against the back of another soldier.

Unlike a natural disaster, survival in the midst of war rarely brings relief or recovery: Often it's a prelude to unspeakable horrors and endless tribulation. Mikhalkov lays on the trauma like a heavy coating of sour cream, and his portrayal of war – so meticulous in detail and boldly, effectively orchestrated – chokes the senses and suffocates the soul. Between Nadia and Kotov stretch a series of battlefields with corpses and screaming women, black smoke rising from flames everywhere as Nazis poke among the bodies with the butts of their rifles.

The sheer density of the pathos is overwhelming; but most daunting of all is Mikhalkov's relentlessness in piling on the violence and tragedy. Here, there is only war, and peace is a fragile fragment of a mirage, glimpsed on the blackened horizon like some prank pulled by a ruthless and vengeful god.