The events in Burnt by the Sun take place on one summer day in 1936. This day becomes a turning point in the lives of two men, a revolutionary hero, Sergei Kotov and NKVD secret agent Dmitrii (Mitia). By the end of the day, Kotov is arrested and, as a result, loses his prestigious social position and perfect family; Dmitrii commits suicide. The events of the film elucidate the complexities of the early Soviet period and the onset of the Stalinist terror.
In the early 1990s, the Russian film industry underwent a rapid decline, resulting in the fall of film production from 300 films in 1990 to a mere 36 in 1996. This decrease in the number of annually produced films can be explained by a variety of reasons: the collapse of Soviet centralised distribution networks; a flood of low-priced foreign films into the Russian cinema market; the dilapidated condition and outdated equipment of Soviet-era cinema halls; widespread video piracy; and the economic crises that closed off government subsidies for the film industry.1 Despite these unfavourable conditions, Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun became one of the first post-Soviet blockbusters.
Several factors led to the film’s success. Mikhalkov was personally involved in the film’s production and distribution.2 Moreover, the film gained international recognition: it shared the Grand Jury Prize at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival (with Zhang Yimou’s To Live), and in 1995 it attracted additional audiences as only the third Russian language film to win the Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Foreign Language Film. The film’s international recognition, its elaborate Moscow premiere (it was the first film to be shown in the Kremlin in 20 years), and the celebrity of its director contributed to its blockbuster status.3 Because of its critical acclaim, popular appeal and setting in Stalinist 1930s, the film contributed to contemporary post-Soviet debates on the nature of individual responsibility and the role of personality in history.4
The film’s title draws on the name of the tango ‘The Weary Sun’ (‘Utomlennoe solntse’), popular in the 1930s. The song is the film’s central musical motif that is played on the gramophone and hummed by the characters. However, the film’s title changes the grammatical correlation of the song to ‘Utomlennye solntsem’, in which ‘the weary sun’ turns into ‘worn out by the sun’ or even ‘burnt by the sun’ in the English translation. The title is connected to the film’s dedication to all victims of the Revolution of 1917 – the film’s postscript reads ‘to those who were burnt by the sun of the Revolution’. As critics immediately noticed, this title is reminiscent of Hollywood’s Gone with the Wind (in Russian Unesennye vetrom), which similarly uses the personal lives of its characters to illustrate dramatic events of American history.5
Personal responsibility or guilt under the pressure of history is one of the film’s central themes. The words of the song ‘Weary Sun’ that serves as the film’s musical motif, ‘you and I are both guilty’, refer to the feeling of mutual guilt in the death of love. The events in Burnt by the Sun take place on a Sunday in June 1936, at the beginning of Stalin’s repressions. Secret service (NKVD) officer Mitia receives a phone call that informs him of a mission to arrest the Red Army Commander Sergei Kotov at his dacha (country cottage) near Moscow. Mitia arrives at the dacha, where Kotov spends the weekend with his family, his wife Marusia and their daughter Nadia. Mitia’s arrival is disruptive not only because of his mission, but also because of his past relationship with Marusia’s family. Mitia was the favourite pupil of Marusia’s father, and Marusia’s first love. The personal past of these two men are closely related. Kotov is not only married to a woman who Mitia loves, he has also enlisted Mitia in the NKVD and has sent him abroad as a double agent. Mitia believes that Kotov has done this intentionally, thereby removing a competitor for Marusia’s affections. Thus, when Mitia brings arrested Kotov to Moscow, his actions can be interpreted as both an accomplishment of a secret mission and personal revenge.
In addition to their intertwined personal histories, both men share a connection to the NKVD and Stalin. Kotov knows Stalin’s personal phone number by heart, and Stalin’s portrait as well as family photos with Stalin decorate the walls of Kotov’s dacha. While Kotov’s connection to Stalin is personal, Mitia’s association is primarily symbolic: Mitia appears at the beginning of the film following the portraits of Stalin, Lenin, Marx, and Engels. Arriving at Kotov’s dacha, Mitia enters from under the portrait of Stalin carried by the group of pioneers. Mitia’s apartment overlooking the Kremlin – the famous house on the Embankment of the party elite – similarly symbolises his privileged position within the Stalinist system.
The clash of these ‘guilty’ men occurs in the dacha that is contrasted to Moscow – the centre of the Stalinist state. The first scene at the dacha depicts Kotov’s family in a Russian steam bath. This scene combines the family idyll with a traditional past, thus allowing for nostalgic contemplation of Russian traditions. Belonging to Mitia’s lover and Kotov’s wife, the dacha represents the Russian past and family life that the two men value, but eventually destroy through their connection to the system – their involvement with the secret police.
The theme of mutual guilt is interrelated with the themes of fate and the inevitability of Stalin’s terror that is symbolised by the fireballs with their capacity for unpredictable destruction. The unexpectedly appearing fireballs are mentioned at the beginning of the film: While Mitia is trying to commit suicide through the game of Russian roulette, his former tutor, Philip, reads an article about fireballs that suddenly increase in number. Significantly, the article blames this phenomenon on sabotage, the work of anti-Soviet spies, thus showing that even natural phenomena could be incorporated in the logic of Stalin’s terror. Similarly, the logic of terror destroys both Mitia and Commander Kotov, using their interconnected and complicated past to realise their destruction. The real fireballs then appear twice in the film: as Mitia retells Marusia and Nadia the story of his life in fairy-tale form, and, at the end of the film, as Mitia finally succeeds in his suicide. The emphasis on fate, symbolised by fireballs and Russian roulette, undermines the notions of mutual guilt and personal responsibility.
With its emphasis on mutual guilt, Burnt by the Sun initially proposes a tragic interpretation of the protagonists’ personal history. However, it instead turns into an epic melodrama with a clear moral code.6 In the final analysis, the film is quite direct in its evaluation of moral character: both men might be guilty, but one is clearly guiltier than the other. Kotov holds the moral high ground due to his love of the motherland and the Russian people. Recognised and loved by everyone, he even competes with the authority of Stalin in his popular appeal. Kotov is associated with the family and Russian tradition that Mitia comes to destroy.7 In contrast to Kotov, Mitia represents the shiftless ‘cosmopolitan intelligentsia’, tainted by their prolonged contact with the West.8 Their lack of conviction led to the destruction of the pre-revolutionary Russia that Mitia used to love, and Kotov directly accuses Mitia to be unable to defend his ideals. Having become a Soviet double agent, Mitia further undermines his ideals, and turns into a trickster figure. Lacking any solid identity, he plays an infinite number of roles.
Masculine conflicts and communities are central to Burnt by the Sun. This community is contrasted to the world of the family, women and children. Both Kotov’s daughter, Nadia, and his wife, Marusia, are in need of protection. The two are often equated, since Marusia appears as childlike to both Mitia and Kotov. She is much younger than both men, and Mitia’s fondest memories of Marusia are of her childhood years. The world of the family is characterised by innocence and simple pleasures, while the masculine world is contaminated by the system. At the same time, only the men have to make moral choices and are responsible for their fate, whereas the family becomes their passive victim. From the film’s postscript we learn that as a wife of ‘the enemy of the people’, Marusia dies in the Gulag, and, as a result, Nadia loses both parents. Both real and symbolic father figures also play a prominent role in the film. Kotov is most sympathetic as Nadia’s father. Stalin appears as a problematic father figure to both Mitia and Kotov, and he is also a surrogate father of the Soviet people – his portrait carried by the air balloon dominates the landscape at the end of the film.
The film has a circular structure, where the episodes in Mitia’s apartment near the Kremlin frame the events in the rest of the film. The apartment stands in opposition to Kotov’s dacha. While these spaces appear as clear contrasts in the film, they also represent the limitations of the film’s social scope. Thus, the film focuses on the spaces connected to the past and present elites, while associating the larger Russian countryside with anonymity and chaos. The film’s central conflict similarly brings together the representatives of Russian and Soviet elites.9 In different ways, both Kotov and Mitia bridge the divide between pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary elites, Mitia is able to maintain a privileged life style because of his professional life – his service in the NKVD – and Kotov connects pre-revolutionary and Soviet privileged classes, since, through his marriage to Marusia, he enters her aristocratic and cultured family.
From the perspective of gender, class, and national identity, Burnt by the Sun is consistent with Mikhalkov’s other films.10 It does not deviate from Mikhalkov’s ideology of ‘enlightened conservatism’, in that it combines nostalgia and nationalism in its presentation of the Soviet 1930s.11
1. See Birgit Beumers, ‘Cinemarket, or the Russian Film Industry in “Mission Possible”’, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 51, No. 5, 1999, pp. 871–96; Susan Larsen, ‘In Search of an Audience: The New Russian Cinema in Reconciliation’, in Adele Marie Barker (ed.), Consuming Russia: Popular Culture, Sex and Society since Gorbachev, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 1999, pp. 192–200.
2. In Nikita Mikhalkov: between nostalgia and nationalism, Birgit Beumers points out that Mikhalkov personally managed the film’s distribution with the help of TriTe (p. 113). On the film’s distribution, also see Iuliia Khomiakova, ‘“Oskar”, “Nika” i “Feliks” vstrechaiutsia na Malom Kozikhinskom’ (interview with Leonid Vereshchagin), Kino-glaz, Vol. 3, 1995, p. 35.
3. On the film’s premiere, see Tat’iana Cherednichenko, ‘“Utomlennye solntsem” v “Rossii”’ Iskusstvo kino, Vol. 3, 1995, pp. 19–20.
4. On the discussions surrounding the film, see Stephen M. Norris, ‘Utomlennye solntsem’, in E. Vasil’eva and N. Braginskii, Noev kovcheg Russkogo kino: ot ‘Sten’ki Razina’ do ‘stiliag’, Moscow, Globus Press, 2013, pp. 443–4.
5. For example, Andrei Plakhov describes Burnt by the Sun as ‘our Gone with the Wind’. See ‘Mikhalkov protiv Mikhalkova’, Seans, Vol. 9, 1994, p. 21.
6. Susan Larsen interprets Burnt by the Sun as an epic melodrama, due to its insistence on ‘moral clarity’, seen in the ‘polarization of ethical opposites’, and its ‘stylistic, emotional, and narrative “excess”’. See Susan Larson, ‘National identity, cultural authority, and the post-Soviet blockbuster: Nikita Mikhalkov and Aleksei Balabanov’, Slavic Review Vol. 62, No. 3, 2003, pp. 493–4.
7. Birgit Beumers argues that Mikhalkov does not blame Bolshevism for the destruction of the Russian past. As a result, he ‘sways between neo-Leninist and Russophile tradition’. The commander of the Red Army, Kotov, perfectly embodies these contradictory ideals (2003: 104, 112).
8. Mikhalkov is often explicitly anti-Western in his films. This anti-Western position is especially evident in his later film, The Barber of Siberia (1998).
9. In Imperial Trace: Recent Russian Cinema, Nancy Condee argues that Mikhalkov’s films create an illusion of ‘elite cohesion’, in which the prerevolutionary country estate is indistinguishable from the Soviet dacha (p. 85).
10. For Condee, Mikhalkov’s oeuvre is ‘explicitly traditionalist in its political orientation, Orthodox in its belief system, and patriarchal in its sexual order’ (Imperial Trace, p. 86).
11. See Beumers, Nikita Mikhalkov: between nostalgia and nationalism.
Cast & Crew:
[Country: Russia, France. Production Company: Camera One, Canal+, and Studio TriTe. Director: Nikita Mikhalkov. Producers: Leonid Vereshchagin, Nikita Mikhalkov and Michel Seydoux. Screenwriters: Rustam Ebragimbekov and Nikita Mikhalkov. Cinematographer: Vilen Kaliuta. Music: Eduard Artemiev. Editor: Enzo Meniconi. Cast: Nikita Mikhalkov (Commander Sergei Kotov), Ingeborga Dapkunaite (Marusia), Nadezhda Mikhalkova (Nadia), Oleg Men’shikov (Dmitrii (Mitia)), Viacheslav Tikhonov (Vsevolod Konstantinovich), Vladimir Il’in (Kirik), Alla Kazanskaia (Lidia Stepanovna), Nina Arkhipova (Elena Mikhailovna), Avangard Leont’ev (the driver).]
Anna Lawton, Imaging Russia 2000: Film and Facts, Washington, DC, New Academia Publishing, 2004.
Birgit Beumers, Burnt by the Sun, Kinofile 3, London, I.B Tauris, 2000. Birgit Beumers, Nikita Mikhalkov: Between Nostalgia and Nationalism, London, I.B. Tauris, 2003. Birgit Beumers (ed.), Russia on Reels: The Russian Idea in Post-Soviet Cinema, London, New York, I. B. Tauris, 1999. Nancy Condee, Imperial Trace: Recent Russian Cinema, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.