from Nikita Mikhalkov: Between Nostalgia and Nationalism
Birgit Beumers

With Burnt by the Sun, Mikhalkov made another film about his love for Russia despite the devastation of the Stalinist epoch. On a Sunday in June 1936, the secret-service (NKVD) officer Mitya (Oleg Menshikov) accepts and carries out a special assignment: the arrest of the Red Army Commander Kotov (Mikhalkov) at his family dacha near Moscow. Meanwhile, Kotov enjoys domestic life with his wife Marusya (Ingeborga Dapkunayte) and daughter Nadia (Nadia Mikhalkov). Mitya, a friend of the family and Marusya's first love, arrives and spends the day with the family, taking Kotov with him back to Moscow in the evening. Upon his return to Moscow, Mitya succeeds in his second suicide attempt (having tried to shoot himself the day before): he cuts his wrists in the bath.

The film contrasts the pre-Revolutionary lifestyle of the intelligentsia (Marusya's father was a musician, her uncle is a professor of Roman law in the faculty of history) with that of the Soviet reality of Revolutionary leaders (Kotov), juxtaposes the ideals of the Whites against those of the Reds, and ultimately insists on the destructive power of political ideas as opposed to personal happiness. Mikhalkov returned to a pre-Revolutionary, beautiful setting, never condemning Bolshevism and blaming the betrayal of ideas on the Whites: as it were, they annihilated the potential for opposition to Bolshevism.

Burnt by the Sun is set at the beginning of the great Purges under Stalin and before the show trials, which are, however, looming on the horizon. The film anticipates the Great Terror that would soon become manifest: while it is still possible for a high-ranking officer such as Kotov to believe in the justice of the system, the threat is tangible, audible and visible throughout, but clear to him only by the end of the film. The film captures the last moments before the show trials made such a firm belief as Kotov's in the Revolutionary ideals impossible, and conveys a pre-Revolutionary lifestyle that really did survive into the 1930s in exceptional circumstances.

The film draws on the 1930s tango Utomlyonnoe solntze ("the weary sun"), changing the grammatical correlation to "utomlyonnoe solntzem" – "those worn out by the sun." The film is dedicated to those who were burnt by the sun of the Revolution. The title create an assonance of Burnt by the Sun with another grand narrative of American history, Gone with the Wind (in Russian, Unesyonnye vetrom), attempting to appeal to a wider audience.

The film begins and ends with a view of the red stars on the Moscow Kremlin spires, which were actually only put up in 1937 for the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution. The action departs from and returns to Moscow: NKVD officer Mitya arrives at his Moscow flat and accepts a special assignment. He travels to the country dacha to arrest Kotov and brings him back to Moscow. Mitya's Moscow flat is located in the grey building that was the government apartment block, the "House on the Embankment," with a close view of the centre of political power (of the Reds), while the Whites – the intellectual Golovin family – live on the periphery, on the outskirts, at least for the summer. Burnt by the Sun operates within a closed circular structure in terms of time: the story begins at 6 am and ends at 7 am the following morning. The day portrayed in the film is a long and happy day for a little girl whose ideals remain unshattered throughout, while it is a day that changes the family's life for good.

The circular structure of time and space enhances the closed system of the film's narrative: there is no way out, either in time or space; the characters are entrapped. Outside the capital reigns the vastness of the Russian countryside. Yet here, too, enclosures dominate: the garden of the dacha is surrounded by a fence, and Nadia is forbidden to open the gate. Outside the garden, in the street, potential dangers lurk: the tanks, the black limousine, the evacuation exercise. The enclosure represents simultaneously safety and entrapment.

The interior of the dacha offers a security that cannot be found outside: inside, everything is where it belongs, while there are no directions outside. The countryside is unmapped territory: the truck driver is disorientated and gets nowhere with his request for directions; moreover, the letters of the address have been obliterated. In the same way, many people would be "effaced" during the Purges. While the truck is moving in circles in search of the address, Kotov may know the way out. Yet knowledge is dangerous: for Kotov it ends with a bruised face; for the driver, with death.

While the truck driver is blundering around the countryside, seeking to find his way on a vertical plane, the balloon (dirigible) is built to go upward into the air: it is designed to conquer space and offer an aerial view (as do the airplanes that Kotov hails in the fields as beautiful constructions that do not ruin the fields). The dirigible fits fully into the conquest of space and territory so common in Stalinist culture.

The film explores the marriage between the old Russian intelligentsia (Marusya) and the Revolutionary system (Kotov). The possibility of such a marriage, or the compatibility of the two systems, is addressed: the marriage is based on lies (Kotov has never confessed his involvement in sending Mitya away) and held together by Marusya's attempt to forget the past. The alliance survives, mainly because of Kotov's energy and (sexual) power. It survives, however, only in a place that eclipses Soviet reality and continues with past traditions. The dacha is an artificial environment, out of space and out of time. Mitya is introduced to the viewer in terms of real time (radio) and real space (Moscow). This reality destroys the illusion of a past life in a house protected from the outside world by gates and fences. Again, Mikhalkov plays with the permanence of time in a space symbolysing the past.

Three generations link the pre-Revolutionary past to the present: the fathers, whose lifestyle from the past is dying out (Vsevolod Konstantinovich); the children of the present times (Kotov, Mitya, Marusya); and the future generation, represented by Nadia. The absence and presence of parents is important: Mitya's parents died during the Civil War and he was adopted by Marusya's father, cared for by his tutor Philippe. Stalin is a father figure to Mitya: when Stalin appears as an all-powerful pagan god, rising (on the banner attached to the balloon) as the sun is setting, it becomes clear that he is a father surrogate to Mitya, who has no other family ties. Nadia's belief in the system and in the Soviet ideal is never shattered; she greets the Pioneers in a professional, military manner. Kotov strengthens her enthusiasm, telling her about Soviet power, which builds such flat roads that her heels will remain soft and rosy; she is not afraid of the men in the car, even sitting at the wheel when they leave with Kotov, returning to the dacha humming the title song.

In the atmosphere of the dacha, Marusya's family reminisce about pre-Revolutionary times, a life enriched by traditions and values, by culture (music, dance, plays), which returns to the dacha with Mitya and from which Kotov is excluded: he has no education. Mitya belongs culturally and socially with Marusya's family, but he has been alienated from it by Kotov, who recruited him for the secret service. Now he brings pre-Revolutionary activities back and excludes Kotov, who cannot speak French or dance the cancan. The political past forms the subject of a brief conversation during the football match, when Kotov reminds Mitya of the facts as he remembers them: Mitya was an officer for the Whites before becoming a secret agent for the OGPU in 1923 so that he could return from emigration. Mitya obediently rewrites Kotov's past according to the instructions of the NKVD: Kotov had been a German spy since 1920 and worked for the Japanese since 1923. The past is, on the one hand, a happy memory; on the other, it is a part of history to be rewritten according to the dominant perspective on the political past at any given time.

Mitya believed in the system when he trusted the secret service in their promise to repatriate him and then let him off the hook. A naïve belief, perhaps, but such naivety was common among Russian émigré circles in Europe in the 1920s. Kotov, meanwhile, took everything Mitya had longed for and betrayed him. Kotov claims that his actions were always motivated by a sense of duty for his country, whereas Mitya acted out of fear. Yet Mitya has acted in defence of that pre-Revolutionary world in which Kotov now lives, like a parasite, with a beautiful and intelligent wife and a lovely child.

Mitya's decisions are made for personal reasons, whereas Kotov is a military man whose personal life comes second to duty. The axis of the plot, however, is not the issue of Mitya wishing to destroy the world to which he no longer belongs; instead, he aims to annihilate Kotov's attempt to live with the best of two worlds simultaneously. Mitya is politically successful, but his personal life has failed. Kotov has personal happiness and political power, and he loses both. Mitya realizes the potential permanence of personal happiness as opposed to the transience of political success: he has finished with his life already at the beginning of the film and leaves it to chance (Russian roulette) whether he fulfils this assignment or not; if he does not arrest Kotov, then somebody else will. The system is indestructible. Kotov enjoys "paternal" protection from Stalin but, when he realizes that a change has taken place and Stalin is now a father figure for Mitya, he cries like a child disappointed by his parent and deprived of paternal love.

The film raises the question of where the borderline lies between victim and oppressor, between the victim Kotov and the victim Mitya. Although one might argue at first sight that there is a crude dividing line between the positive hero Kotov and the offender and destroyer Mitya, between Kotov's Soviet heroism and Mitya's Western decadence, the film is much more complex than that. Kotov is a mere executor of Stalin's political will, and acts under the illusion of having control (believing to the end that he can still rely on Stalin's support); Mitya, by contrast, has tried to reserve his integrity: he acts, aware of the fact that he is a mere arm of power, an executor, an actor. The comparison to Platonov lies nearby, who is as passive and lazy as the other characters in Mechanical Piano, but aware of his passivity.

The choice of the popular actor Oleg Menshikov for the part of Mitya is instrumental in brining out the positive features in the NKVD officer. Mitya appears as an old blind man emerging from the Young Pioneers marching past the dacha; he is a blank page onto which any history and any identity can be written. In order to win Nadia's heart, he poses as Father Frost (the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus) and as a magician; in order to gain entrance into the house, he claims to be a doctor. He pretends to be married with three children, yet he is a sad, lonely man. He can adopt any role; indeed, he needs to do so in order to give his life a meaning, at least temporarily. He recites the tunes he taught Marusya, repeats the steps he learnt in Paris, quotes Hamlet, plays an invalid at the beach to be helped up by a fat lady, and "performs" a dive into the river. His every movement is a calculated action, a performance. There is no other way for him to return to the past than by creating a carnival atmosphere that allows him to behave like a child and play all sorts of – forbidden – games. He needs to create masks for himself, rather than a personality; he lacks psychological depth and, burdened with his role, he cannot change or reveal his emotions.

If Mitya is an actor who performs roles, Kotov is an image that cannot change. Mitya wrote this part for himself, whereas Kotov is a portrait in a world replacing its idols. Effigies of the Leader were displayed everywhere in the 1930s; Stalin's portrait features in central episodes in the film and finally rises on the balloon's banner. Kotov's portraits are also displayed everywhere, and the encounter with him has a similar effect on people to the "unforgettable encounters" with Stalin portrayed in Soviet films of the 1930s and 1940s: recognition of the goal of socialism. Indeed, Kotov somewhat resembles Stalin, with his huge moustache. Yet images may collapse, and Kotov is only an image. The popularity of effigies of any other leader but Stalin can be compared to the rivalry between Kirov and Stalin in 1934 before Stalin instructed the NKVD to eliminate his rival. Mitya's reaction to the portrait of the Great Leader rising on the balloon underlines his acceptance of his role as an executor. Mitya is about to light a cigarette stuck between his lips when his face contracts into a huge grin: he has done the job, as the leader wanted; he has played his role.

When Mitya first appears, he emerges from a group of marching Pioneers who are singing the Aviators' March (1920). The song anticipates the 1930s' call for a varnished and perfected reality, while it also echoes two themes relevant to the film: the birds that fly too high get burned by fireballs; and the theme of aeroplanes that conquer territory. "We are born to make a fairy tale come true," a line from the song, is the premise upon which Mitya enters the house. Mitya speaks the truth through fairy tales: he is from the West (the Maghreb) and he recalls the happy past in the form of a fairy tale. In a tale with inverted names, Mitya tells the story of the boy Yatim, who had to fight in the war, and when he returned the girl Yasum had become a beautiful princess, with whom he fell in love. Then an important man took Yasum away from him and sent him abroad. Nadia understands the principle of fairy tales very well: she expects a happy ending, and when Yatim and Yasum do not marry, she correctly assumes that the "important man" must be an ogre. She also understands the principle of the inversion of names and applies it to herself: she figures out that she would be Yadan in the story. Nadia transposes herself into fairy worlds, but does not transpose the fairy-tale world into reality. The principle advocated in the Soviet march does not work: we do not turn the fairy tale into reality, but instead make reality a fairy story, a myth.

The main line of the character relationships is built on the duality that lies in the confrontation between Mitya and Kotov, rivals for Marusya's affection. Mitya returns to the house of the woman he loves, yet he peppers the conversation with constant reminders of her not as a young girl but as a child. Mitya is clearly indicating that he is not there to claim Marusya back. He acts in a way to protect Marusya, who is understandably shaken up in her artificially built and carefully created emotional security when he arrives. Mitya is very playful with Nadia and relates extremely well to her, despite the fact that he has no children. Yet he recognizes in the six-year-old Nadia the girl Marusya whom he took to the Bolshoi Theater and whom he taught the piano. His relation to the little girl Marusya explains not only his experience of handling children but also why he is so fond of Nadia. In fact, he receives from Nadia the attention he got from the little Marusya, the attention he no longer elicits from the woman who is now Kotov's wife. Nadia is a substitute for Marusya.

While Kotov combines the world of the present with that of the past, the harmony of Marusya's family life with his military career, Mitya never succeeds in getting a share of both. Yet this is what he longs for all the time: to side with the Whites and to stay in Russia; to return to Russia with the help of the secret service and then quit. His wish to have the best of both worlds means compromise, and this is what he cannot reach. His dilemma is reflected in an everyday banality: in his reply to Nadia's question whether he wants "tea with jam or coffee with milk", Mitya says he would like "coffee with jam." As a result, he gets neither.

Colour symbolism dominates costumes and clothing: the dachniki are all in white, seated on their rattan furniture. A hint of blue sometimes complements the white of the costumes (stripes on a shirt, a blue edge on a collar, a blue blouse), reflecting the colour range of the Russian flag. Their white dress (a reference also to the "White" army) is contrasted to the grey of the NKVD officers' suits and of the concrete structure of the House on the Embankment, sybolising power. The balloon that pulls up Stalin's portrait is of a silvery grey. The colour black features only on the car that comes to take Kotov and Mitya back to Moscow. The colour red is associated with the Soviet way of life: the Young Pioneers' ties, the flags on the trumpets, the flags at the beach and in the street, the banners on the House on the Embankment and on the construction site of the balloon, the stars on the Kremlin towers, but most importantly – the banner with the portrait of Stalin that rises on the horizon at the end of the film. Red is also the colour of the blood on Kotov's face and in Mitya's bath. It is implied here that the Soviet power represented by the colour red is the same as blood, and built on the blood of the people.

Twice in the film the special effect of a fireball is used. First, when Mitya tells the fairy tale about the past, the fireball emerges on the river, whizzes through the house and settles over the wood, where it eventually collides with a falcon and crashes into a single tree, which burns down. The destruction of a bird and a single tree accompanies the point in the narrative when Mitya loses Marusya for the first time. The second fireball effect accompanies Mitya's physical destruction, his suicide. The fireball is red and can also be understood as a symbol for the Soviet system in an extension of the colour symbolism discussed above. In this reading, the system destroys people in an indiscriminate manner. The effect is symbolic and not integrated in the overall realism of the film. It obtrudes as artificial, although it is reported in the newspaper article that Philippe reads at the beginning of the film, and it is unreal in that nobody notices the fireball.

Kotov and Mitya both faced choices between life and death at different moments in their past. Mitya claims that he had no choice, and that a choice between life and death is no choice. He left the country without telling Marusya that he was acting on NKVD orders to protect her family, but – and here he is honest – also because he wanted to live. Kotov says there is always a choice, a choice between life and death. Like Mitya, Kotov does not want anyone to know that he will be arrested in order not to upset the peace in the house. Ironically, he has no choice anymore.

Kotov has something to live for in the ideal and perfect construction of the future. Mitya has no sense in his life. Kotov's life is taken; Mitya takes his own. He puts an end to being used for further tasks (the phone keeps ringing, possibly with more special assignments, while he lies in the bath). He knows that he is an arm of the system, and he – who claimed that there was no choice – makes a choice: to put an end to his life. Kotov makes no choice in the present: he has chosen, once and for all, to trust Stalin; now he makes the choices. Mitya is only an executive: if he does not carry out the arrest, somebody else will. Mitya is a loser: he is doomed to defeat; he has lost the war, love, life. The absence of love alluded to in the title song defines the theme of the film and is the reason for Mitya's behaviour.

Burnt by the Sun dwells on the beauty of Russia, on the lifestyle of the past, which is not, in the film, destroyed by the Bolshevik Kotov. Continuing the glorification of Bolshevism begun in At Home Among Strangers and Slave of Love, Mikhalkov here, too, lays no blame for the destruction at Kotov's feet. "Yes, Bolshevism has not brought happiness to our country. But is it morally correct on the basis of this indisputable fact to put under doubt the life of entire generations only on the grounds that people happened to be born not in the best of times?"

Mitya is a mere arm of the system, and Stalin's totalitarian regime is thus interpreted as an inevitable art of history that neither Kotov nor Mitya are directly responsible for. The film relieves the individual of responsibility for history and glorifies not only the Russia of the past but also Bolshevism (albeit defeated in the 1930s). Mikhalkov thus creates an apologia for what the Soviet system turned great Russia into, and sways between a neo-Leninist and Russophile position.

Mikhalkov presents Soviet reality as more illusory than the fairy tale, inverting the relationship between fact and fiction. The fairy tale contains a confession, which is a myth, while the present is the illusion of life. Thus, neither past nor present is authentic. Mikhalkov longs for a past when it was possible to believe in ideals, when there were ideals. These are absent in the present; they are about to disappear this day in June 1936. Mikhalkov thus infers the need for a Utopia from past to present; once ideals are destroyed, people die at the hands of the system or at their own hands. Mikhalkov here makes a worrying comment on the present of Russian society, which – in 1994 – clearly lacked any such ideals. By casting himself as a kind Bolshevik commander, who believes in the ideals of the Revolution and, furthermore, is a perfect father to his child, he offers himself in the role of a leader of the people, but one who would return to the roots of socialism, or – in fictional terms – to the spirit of At Home Among Strangers. This confusion of fiction and reality leads to the portrayal of a political Utopia, which Mikhalkov would gradually mistake for an authentic ideal. It is from this angle that Tatiana Moskvina's comment stems: "Any person who proposes himself and his life as a universally valid lyrical Utopia is in danger of losing the understanding of his rational contemporaries." ...

The pivotal issue addressed in this film, as in other films about the Stalin era, is the question of responsibility. In a system such as the Soviet one, where the individual was "freed" from choice, did the individual have any scope for making decisions? In a totalitarian state, does the individual have any choice, and if so, where does the choice lie (in Mitya's case, die or collaborate)? Ultimately, who is responsible: the system or the individual? Critics have commented a great deal on the issue of choice and guilt in Burnt by the Sun, seeking to ascertain whom the filmmaker condemns – the Reds or the Whites; the Revolutiolnaries or the intelligentsia; dreamers or thinkers.

Overall, the response from Russian critics is typical of their attitude to Nikita Mikhalkov: the film has enjoyed great success with audiences both at home and abroad, because it is not made for an elite audience, and therefore it is despised by the Russian intelligentsia. The same pattern is true for the critical response to The Barber of Seville.