Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Burnt by the Sun (1994)

The award-winning Russian film Burnt by the Sun is one of the few to expose the human cost of Communism in the Soviet Union, not by showing acres of corpses and torture chambers, but by portraying a happy family who have not the slightest inkling that Stalin's eye is upon them. We watch them in growing horror as slowly and subtly the veil is removed and in one stroke their world is burned away. The Revolution turned upon its own children during the Great Purge of the 1930's, in which Stalin sought to "purge" or annihilate any potential rivals, including the "old guard" Bolsheviks of 1917. Director Nikita Mikhalkov depicts one such hero of the Revolution who has found contentment with his wife and daughter, never imagining that he is seen as a threat to the "Workers' Paradise" he helped to create. The character of Kotov is a bit reminiscent of Yul Brynner's Major Surov in The Journey, except in Burnt by the Sun, the devoted Marxist has won and wed his lady.

The winner of the Grand Prize at Cannes as well as the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, Burnt by the Sun brings to life a lost era of history. We see the inhabitants of a backward village celebrating a Communist holiday in their own way, showing that the rigidities of the Marxist system could not stamp out creativity and individuality. According to one review:
The setting opens in 1936, just before Joseph Stalin's Great Purge. Sergei Kotov (Nikita Mikhalkov), an idealistic communist and honored hero of the Russian Sivil War, is enjoying his day off in his wife’s family’s country cabin, or rather a pretty big summer house, “dacha”. His wife Maroussia (Ingeborga Dapkūnaitė), their daughter Nadia, and Maroussia's large and eccentric family of intelligent ex-nobles are shown very descriptively.
Into this idyllic day comes Mitya (Oleg Menshikov), a former family friend who was Maroussia's lover before his sudden disappearance. The family is rejoicing at his visit and a lazy, serene and happy summer day is moving on. However, soon we understand that despite his humorous, friendly nature Mitya has come to this house with a secret agenda. Mitya now works for the Secret Police, or NKVD, and has an order to arrest General Kotov under false charges of spying for the German and Japanese governments.

This is revenge to some extent, as the reason why he left Maroussia was that Kotov forcibly recruited him into the NKVD many years ago. Mitya was then sent to Paris to spy on Russian emigrants. As a result, Mitya hates Kotov, whom he blames for taking away both Maroussia and his own faith in God. Kotov, however, views Mitya as "a whore" who was "bought and paid for" by the Soviet State. He is certain that Mitya's plans to arrest him are nothing more than a personal vendetta. Because of his enormous popularity and his close relationship with Stalin, Kotov is sure that the regime will never dare to touch him.
 Burnt by the Sun would be comic if it were not for the searing reminders that the characters are living in Stalinist Russia. Kotov's assortment of in-laws and friends are like characters right out of You Can't Take It with You, from the various grandparents and eccentric aunts and uncles to the neurotic maid. Having survived war and revolution, all seem happy to be alive and together, even if the condition of safety is the marriage of the daughter of the family to a Bolshevik officer. Kotov, of peasant background, is perfectly at ease with his wife's aristocratic relations, who likewise seem at ease with him. The unifying factors are no doubt the successful marriage and its fruit, the irrepressible Nadia. The six year old is the heart of the household and her father's joy. Her confidence in him and the Soviet regime he fought for are overshadowed by the giant banner of Stalin that fills the sky at the end of the film. In the words of The Washington Post:
The story of a family and a people—it's about the scorching all too many suffered from the rising sun of socialism—the movie's a constant, rich tapestry of Chekhovian and Bergman-esque family life. It's also suffused with Mikhalkov's customary sense of irony and political symbolism.
With a running time of 134 minutes, and with no flagging of details or energy, "Sun" makes great demands on that rapidly diminishing commodity—the American attention span. But with sustained concentration, the experience is ultimately rewarding....

The most touching element of all is the relationship between fictional (and real-life) father and daughter. The Mikhalkovs work together like Astaire and Rogers. He's a life-affirming Zorba the walrus, she's a delicate angel perched on his back. In her face, the movie memorably invests its doomed innocence and faith.



Dymphna said...

That movie broke my heart. It's breathtaking to think of all the millions of humans were crushed by the Soviets.

May said...

I watched this film several years ago. I had some trouble following all the ins and outs of the relationships between the various characters, but the overall message came through clearly- it was terrifying and very moving.

julygirl said...

Wonderful review!

Chilling how even a Bolshevik General who helped the progress of the Revolution becomes, in Stalin's mind, an enemy of the State. When will the day arrive when somewhere in the world ordinary people will not have to live under a leader who is a monster in disguise.