Nikita Mikhalkov’s “Burnt by the Sun”

Slovo, Vol. 9, No.1, 1996

Mikhalkov’s tale of life in the Russian countryside in the mid-1930s is an apparently idyllic one. A man and a woman deeply in love, a child they adore, and a family they cherish. The characters sing and dance in a beautiful and harmonious setting. But the destructive glare of Stalin gleams over them. The tensions of bravery and cowardice, honour and betrayal, freedom and constraint are played out. The film ends tragically, the protagonists scorched and burnt by ‘the sun of the revolution’. Burnt by the Sun is dedicated to all those who suffered in this way.

Mikhalkov’s portrayal of life in Stalinist Russia is rich in pathos and humour, chaos and harmony. The film is characterized by sharp contrasts in action and viewpoints. It opens with two conflicting scenes which reflect this directorial trait. Dmitrii, played by Oleg Menchikov, sits in a chair in his Moscow apartment, loads a pistol, puts it to his head, and pulls the trigger. The atmosphere, reminiscent of Chekhov, is dark and gloomy. The photography enforces this impression, light deliberately kept out of the cinematic frame. Set against this darkness is a scene of family bliss in a wooden hut in the countryside. Colonel Sergei Petrovich Kotov, played by Mikhalkov himself, bathes with his daughter, Nadia. The two of them play ‘the platypus’ together while Marussia looks on adoringly. These two carefully drawn scenes demonstrate the filmmaker’s ability to create atmosphere and delineate character. The method – casting simple and concise insights on the protagonists’ situations and their psychological responses to them – is characteristic of Chekhov. Atmosphere is elevated above plot and becomes vital to the film’s dramatic development.

Burnt by the Sun‘s treatment of the ills of Stalinist Russia is rich in subtleties, with instances of oppression and injustice touched by moments of parody and comedy. The Colonel’s steam bath is interrupted by ‘our tanks’, in the words of a distraught villager, which have come to ‘ruin the wheat’. Kotov mounts a horse bareback and gallops off to intercept them. The audience watches with delight as the courageous Colonel, to dramatic musical accompaniment, approaches Brigadier Commander Lapine, reveals himself as the Old Bolshevik hero, mocks the insolent soldier, and orders the tanks to turn back. The actions of the Soviet forces are potentially tragic for this small, fragile, rural community. But Mikhalkov injects sunlight and humour into them.

The main action takes place around a dacha situated in a State Home for Artists and Musicians (SHAM) outside Moscow. The period piece is Mikhalkov’s forte, and his detailed cinematic eye paints Renoiresque tableaux of the dreamy dacha, the beautiful river and woodland, and the characters which inhabit this environment. Dmitrii returns to his home disguised as a bearded blind man, a ‘wizard from Maghreb’. He makes a theatrical entrance into the dacha, goading and taunting individual family members, and then strips off his costume to everyone’s delight. Mikhalkov establishes immediately an awkward tension between the characters of Mitia and Marussia. He avoids dialogue and concentrates on the nervous actions of the young woman gulping down water and tapping her fingernails repetitively on the side of a glass. The camera lingers on the small detail of her wrists which are heavily scarred, her attempt to ‘obliterate’ Dmitrii from her consciousness ten years before. The emotionally charged encounter down by the river between Mitia and Marussia is disrupted by the comic nuisance of Civilian Defence Workers seeking out volunteers for gas training. Mitia has lured his lost love into the water, and forces her to remember their passionate night together in the boatman’s barn where he had read Hamlet to her and she had wept. While volunteers struggle to carry a fat, big-busted woman on a stretcher, Dmitrii demands, ‘I’m dead.’ A defence volunteer reports, ‘We leave the dead.’

The disorder and rowdiness of the river bank is juxtaposed with the calm and beauty embodied in the rowing boat between Sergei and his daughter. The hero of the revolution, with his name and a brash image of the sun tattooed on his arm, reveals himself as a tender and loving father, caressing Nadia’s soft feet. His daughter asks him, ‘Can we drift like this for all our lives?’ The screenplay is poetic and succinct. Mikhalkov demonstrates that he is an exquisite craftsman, achieving a perfect balance here between dialogue and the visual spectacle of the film format.

The dramatic tension of Burnt by the Sun is built up through intimation and ambiguity. The Russian filmmaker, in a Felliniesque vein, portrays the shooting of a near silent melodrama at particular points in his work. Sergei is sure that he can hear the faint creaking and grinding of bedsprings coming from one of the bedrooms in his dacha. Their pitch and volume grow in his mind’s eye – yes, Mitia and his wife are making love? And Dmitrii, through his sinister gas mask, stares at his sexual rival, the Colonel, who responds with his characteristic dazzling smile – yes, is Mitia intent on reclaiming what was his, Marussia’s deep love and his sweet home? The audience is unsure. Mikhalkov controls the viewer’s emotional and rational response. The audience is at once settled and unsettled, reassured then confused. The director and his crew achieve this in the delicate interplay of light and shadow. Mitia’s laughter ends in a groan and Sergei’s smile on the verge of tears. These undercurrents of emotion distinguish Burnt by the Sun as an exceptional piece of filmmaking.

Mikhalkov’s tale builds into something scary and ominous. When will the filmmaker reveal his anti-hero’s enigmatic purpose? Dmitrii, suffering neurotic alienation as direct consequence of his estrangement from his loving family and home, and his gradual identification with a brutal machine, cannot penetrate the intense love of Sergei and Marussia. The audience witnesses something akin to an explosion: an explosion of truth, despair, bitterness and resentment. ‘A car is coming in two hours’ to take the Old Bolshevik away. During the football match, a good proletarian game unlike ‘bourgeois’ and ‘middle class’ croquet and tennis, the viewer learns that Mitia, the pseudo ‘pianist’ and ‘musician’, works for the NKVD. During the Civil War he ‘fingered eight Generals from the White Army’, who were shot without trial. He was bought by the Colonel and his Bolsheviks like a ‘whore’. Then the full horrors of Stalin’s paranoid purges are forced on the audience. Dmitrii threatens Sergei with ‘five or six days crawling in his own shit’. Then he ‘will admit in writing that since 1920 he has worked for the Germans, since 1923 for the Japanese, and that he was a terrorist who wanted to murder Stalin’. ‘Confession is the source of justice’ in this cruel and twisted world. In his study for the last time, Kotov sits in his Red uniform and stares desperately at the framed photographs of Stalin and himself on the bureau. Mikhalkov depicts Sergei’s impending execution as the ultimate betrayal. He is Stalin’s brother-in-arms, he has his direct phone line, and yet these things mean nothing. As the assassins beat him to death in the car and dispose of the lost truck driver looking for ‘Zagorianka’, Stalin’s great balloon lifts off. The leader’s influence and power is absolute and universal. Everyone is burnt by the rays of his cruelty.

Burnt by the Sun ends where it began, in Dmitrii’s gloomy flat in Moscow. He lies in a bathtub, drowning in his own blood. He does not have the courage and strength to stay alive. His battle with life has come to an end. The powerful filmic metaphor of a burning sun hovers over him. Mikhalkov’s visual symbol of the malign forces of revolution stamps itself on the audience’s psyche. The pathos is complete. The directorial tone and method enforce this sentiment. In 1995 Burnt by the Sun was the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture. It richly deserved both prizes.

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  1. Wonderful review of one of my favourite films. It’s just a shame Mikhalkov went so badly off the rails later.

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