Socialist Republic, Issue №190 10.1995 Alex Callinicos
For much of its length, Burnt by the Sun seems like an elegant film adaptation of one of Chekhov's plays about the Russian gentry towards the end of the Tsarist era. It follows a leisurely summer Sunday enjoyed by a family belonging to the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia in their dacha in the countryside somewhere near Moscow. As in Chekhov, the day is devoted largely to eating, drinking, humour, nostalgia, music, hanky-panky, and – this being Russia – talk, talk, talk.
However, this is not pre-revolutionary Russia, but 1936, at the height of Stalin's terror. And the head of this household, Sergei Kotov (played by the director, Mikhalkov) is an old Bolshevik, hero of the revolution, and a colonel in the Red Army. Though he has married the daughter of the family, Marusya (Ingeborga Dapkunayte), he is a man of the new regime. When his in-laws throw themselves collectively into a wild can-can, Kotov pointedly sits down to lunch on his own, declaring, "I don't speak French." And Sunday afternoons are now devoted to proletarian football, not bourgeois croquet.
Initially, the presence of Stalinism only makes itself felt in harmless, even comic, ways – bungled tank maneuvers, a Young Pioneers' march, an absurd civil-defence exercise against gas attacks. But as the film continues, tension grows. It is centered on the unexpected appearance of Dmitry (Oleg Menshikov), an old friend of the family and Marusya's former lover. Dmitry is everything that Kotov is not. He is a sensitive, artistic intellectual. But from the start there is something out of kilter, almost hysterical about his behaviour.
The tone of the film rapidly darkens when we discover that Dmitry now works for the NKVD, the secret police. As the day draws to its horrifying conclusion, this cosy little home of the gentry and the Bolshevik hero who now presides over it turn out not, after all, to be immune to the destructive forces raging through Russia. This horror is all the greater because the story unfolds amid the glory of the Russian summer.
The concluding sequences, as the Stalinist terror brutally intrudes on this summer idyll, are strongly reminiscent of the climactic scene of Bernardo Bertolucci's great film about fascism, The Conformist. There, it is Mussolini's thugs, got up like gangsters from a 1930s Hollywood movie, who pursue a fleeing woman through a snow covered forest. Here, it is the men of the Stalinist NKVD who murder in a sunny wheatfield, but they look the same and are waging the same kind of terror.
Burnt by the Sun is an exceptionally powerful and interesting film. It is striking for the way in which it draws creatively on the great traditions of 19th-century Russian realism. It is also remarkable for a Russian film made in the Yeltsin era in the balanced view it offers of the revolution and its aftermath.
The film is dedicated to "All those burnt by the sun of the Revolution," but this is (intentionally?) ambiguous. In the scenes where Kotov and Dmitry confront each other, both of them flawed, both of them with dirty hands, it seems to me that it is Kotov, the man of the revolution, who emerges as the morally stronger character.
The film would not be as effective were it not for the cast's consistently first-rate performances. Particularly striking is Nadia Mikhalkov as Kotov's six-year-old daughter, Nadia. Her scenes with Kotov (played by her real father) have an emotional spontaneity that brings home the larger tragedy with almost unbearable force. Burnt by the Sun indeed.