screened December 25, 2007 on Sony Pictures Classics DVD in South San Francisco CA

TSPDT rank #842 IMDb Wiki

This Foreign Film Oscar winner by actor/director Nikita Mikhailkov is only one of two post-Soviet Russian films in the TSPDT 1000 – like the other one, Russian Ark (TSPDT #929), it is a revisitation of its nation’s past glories and horrors. An idyllic, Capra-esque household led by the gentle patriarchal war hero Kotov (Mikhailkov) is forever disrupted by the mysterious reappearance of Mitya (Oleg Menshikov), former lover of Dmitri’s wife, who comes to symbolize a frightening new tenor for those living in Stalin’s Russia of the 1930s. The film takes a good half of its running time getting to its point of intrigue, electing to bask in the summer glow of an outdoor family idyll, Kotov doting extensively on his young daughter (Mikhailkov’s real life daughter Nadia). The results feel as static as filmed theater at times, though Mikhailkov loads his frames with symbolism both obvious (a woman letting the faucet overflow upon the appearance of her ex-lover) and bizarre (a fireball that vandalizes the home without anyone noticing). However it steadily builds to a sobering climax, one that brings out the moral complexities and lack of absolutes between both Kotov and Mitya.

Sony Pictures Classics webpage — A good reminder of web advertising circa 1995!

Contemporary reviews

What binds the mixture is Mikhalkov’s love of all the stray details his camera catches; the movie may sound dispiriting, but it has an amazing ability to cheer you up. There is a full range of acting styles, from the florid to the cartoonish, and to the sharp-eyed, wholly uncute performance of the director’s eight-year-old daughter, Nadia, who gazes at the unfolding events with the air of one who will never be able to banish them from her memory.

- Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

There’s a scene in Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt By the Sun, the winner of this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film, that’s so tender I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. On a tranquil afternoon in the Russian countryside, Serguei Kotov (played by Mikhalkov), a middle-aged hero of the revolution, takes his 6-year-old daughter, Nadia (Nadia Mikhalkov), out in a rowboat. The year is 1936, and Kotov, a Red army colonel and friend of Stalin’s, is in the prime of life. He adores his daughter and his beautiful young wife, Maroussia (Ingeborga Dapkounaite), and he believes, with a passion bordering on the religious, in the glory of the revolution. Now, cradling Nadia’s tiny foot in his hands, he tells her, with pure, smiling adoration, that that foot will always stay soft and beautiful; the comfortable roads the revolution is building will turn the Soviet Union into a modern paradise. Virile and barrel-chested, with a mustache that makes him look like Omar Sharif at 50, Mikhalkov gives a magnificent performance. He shows us that the love Kotov feels for his daughter and for his motherland is exquisitely continuous. For a few moments, I understood the Communist dream in all its devotional fervor.

Mikhalkov, who was one of the few filmmakers to thrive during the Soviet regime, allows us to gaze with fear and horror upon the rise of a terrorist state. Yet his sun-spangled vision of a revolutionary hero is, if anything, a little too romantic. Though it’s doubtful the director himself ever believed in the Communist utopia (he depicts Kotov’s family as a patchwork of bourgeois frivolity), he nevertheless uses his nostalgia propagandistically, as a way of making the evil of Stalin look like something that rose up out of a vacuum. Burnt by the Sunbuilds slowly, reaching a climax of quiet devastation. If it is finally a good film, though, and not a great one, that’s because Mikhalkov never quite comes to grips with the question he forces us to ask: To what degree was Stalin’s nightmare inherent in Kotov’s dream?

- Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly, May 5 1995

Burnt by the Sun‘s most apparent flaw is the stagnancy of its first two-thirds, which are scripted like Checkov in slow-motion, but without depth. Other than establishing relationships and hinting at past misdeeds, this portion of the film serves little purpose beyond presenting impressive views of Russian country vistas and highlighting several fine performances. Directors like the legendary Ingmar Bergman embraced this sort of deliberate, unhurried pace, but Bergman’s films always had multiple levels of meaning. Mikhalkov’s pastoral sequences are distressingly shallow — they give us the characters and their relationships, but little more. Only in the final third does the plot begin to explore issues of substance and power…

This is the first anti-Stalin film to come out of post-Communist Russia, and the new freedom shows in the full scope of what Mikhalkov is able to criticize. This story is the latest to illustrate the age-old injustices inherent in absolute power and how easily past loyalties are betrayed. After the protracted and sluggish setup, the meat of Burnt by the Sun is as gripping as that of any “serious” motion picture — it’s getting to that point that’s the main difficulty.

- James Berardinelli

I was mildly embarrassed for Mikhalkov, who doesn’t seem to know he has written himself an excruciatingly self-aggrandizing role. This lusty, awe-inspiring hero would be a pain even if he weren’t played by the director: I mean, the man jumps onto a magnificent black stallion and challenges tanks, for Christ’s sake. Mikhalkov’s real-life daughter Nadia, who plays his daughter in the movie, is a charming little actress, but my enjoyment of the father-daughter scenes was marred by my skepticism about Mikhalkov’s motives. Mikhalkov shows off his limitless, effusive adoration of Nadia in this movie the way he did on Oscar night, when he wore her on his shoulder as a sort of family-values epaulet.

- Rob Gonsalves for This Rigid Position

When Nikita Mikhalkov walked off the stage at the Oscars bearing his young daughter Nadia on his shoulders, the moment was so obviously satisfying that it was tempting to confuse his happiness with the Academy’s wisdom. Yet “Burnt by the Sun” was not the best of the nominated foreign films (“Before the Rain” deserved to win), and is not even very original.

It won, dare I say, because it benefitted from the Academy’s flawed rules.

As the only one of the nominees not in theatrical release, it was seen only by those who came to its Academy preview screenings. They, by definition, then became the only voters who had seen all five films and were eligible to vote. This strategy – of keeping a nominee out of theaters in hopes that its private screening audiences will sway the outcome – has worked before, and it worked again this time.

A publicist merely has to be sure to invite everyone friendly to the film, while leaving it up to others to find their own way.

- Roger Ebert, from his two star review of the film, Chicago Sun-Times, May 19, 1995 (I haven’t looked into whether the Academy Award foreign films voting rules that Ebert describes are still in effect)

Trying to figure out why this interminable, hammy piece of Russian nostalgia by Nikita Mikhalkov (director, cowriter, associate producer, and star) won the Oscar for best foreign film of 1994 and the grand jury prize at Cannes, I came up with four hypotheses: (1) there are no Asians in it; (2) set over one long summer day in the country in 1936, it provides a wake-up call about the dangerously underhanded doings of Joseph Stalin; (3) the hero appears to be well over 60; and (4) the elegiac “Chekhovian” style recalls Ingmar Bergman by way of Woody Allen, thus making the film seem trebly familiar. Indeed, apart from intermittent bursts of Edouard Artemiev’s bombastic music, this 134-minute period piece offers the ideal opportunity for a long, peaceful snooze.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader

Other reviews

Caryn James, The New York Times

Desson Howe, The Washington Post

William F. Powers, The Washington Post

Scott Rosenberg, The San Francisco Chronicle

Joseph Cunneen, The National Catholic Reporter

Chris Hicks, Deseret News

Mal Vincent for the University of Virginia Virginian

DVD Journal

In the 2002 Sight and Sound Top Ten poll, Burnt by the Sun was voted for by Danish film critic Kim Skotte and Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang.

Academic perspectives

A University of Iowa course on Russian cinema offers a page on the film with a synopsis and several study questions.

When I first saw Burnt by the Sun in 1994 I thought that, with its perfected shots and rounded plot, it resembled too much the Hollywood-stle films with their neat narratives that pose no questions and make everything only too clear; the sort of film that would impress the Academy. Indeed, the film went on to win the top Hollywood award, the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film.

Beyond the neatly polished surface I gradually discovered a host of references to the events and culture of the 1930s; every gesture, every turn of phrase, every tune had a broader significance, within the film and beyond it. The complexity of the motives which made the main characters act as they did is as ambiguous as is the final cut of the film. Questions such as ‘who is the victim’ and ‘who is the victimizer’ are carefully held in suspension throughout the film. In the process of analysis I came to regard the film highly for making a very complex system of references and signs seem so simple, as if naturally flowing from the cutting board of a director who must be very talented to delude the spectator with his ‘nice little story’.

Introduction to Burnt by the Sun: the KinoFile Film Companion, published by I.B. Taurus. Excerpts available for preview on Google Books.

This review – and addendum – by Felix Kreisel at M.I.T. attests to the conflicting associations that may be brought to the screening.

From its opening to closing scenes, Burnt by the Sun is loaded with images depicting the callous disregard on the part of the Soviet power structure toward the lives of ordinary citizens. As the film begins, tanks mindlessly roll through the countryside disrupting the work of farmers. It is declared that “the tanks are ruining the wheat,” and the point is that the military, representing those in power, are disturbing the peasants—those who were supposed to have benefitted from the revolution—for no legitimate purpose. All that has happened is that one equally repressive ruling order has replaced another.

At the finale, as Dmitri and his fellow secret policemen drive off with Sergei, they come upon a peasant who has lost his way and run out of gas, and whose vehicle is blocking the road. This luckless fellow requests help, and ends up being shot for his trouble. His situation, and his fate, symbolize the state of post-revolutionary Russia: a nation lost and disoriented, where ordinary citizens who have committed no crime may be murdered at the whim of a secret policeman.

Mikhalkov lays the blame for the failure of the revolution squarely at the feet of Stalin. As the car drives off, an overly large banner of the ruler is set into the air. It quickly covers the sky, hovering over the corpse of the peasant and the image of Sergei speeding away to his doom.

- Rob Edelman, Film Reference.com

Outside the Dacha, it is a Soviet festival day to celebrate Stalin and the building of balloons and dirigibles. Military engineers are erecting a mysterious tall structure. A truck appears on the construction scene filled with furniture and a driver who has lost more than his way. His wife had insisted on washing his shirt, but his pocket contained the paper on which the furniture’s destination was written. The address is now not quite legible, so the driver repeatedly asks for directions to a place he cannot quite name. He keeps reappearing in the film, trying people’s patience. There is something both comic and desperate in this truck driver who like the fireball is emblematic of the film. He is the Russian peasant who for centuries had been the victim both of his government and his own stupidity. Mikhalkov in earlier films has portrayed such peasants as though they were less than members of the human race and deserved their fate as serfs. This was conspicuously the case in his film version of Goncharov’s Oblomov. Even in Dark Eyes, his first “western” film, he presented provincial Russia as a land populated by idiots. But in Close to Eden and Burnt by the Sun he has begun to discover the human and passionate side of Russia’s peasants.

- Alan A. Stone for the Boston Review

Mikhalkov’s film has presented a challenge to the main trends in post-Soviet Russian cinema. With film-making in this country dominated by the genre of ‘democratic realism’, advancing its mass of sombre themes and damning judgements, our cinema audi­ences have been left without heroes. And here at last in Burnt by the Sun is an indubitable hero, even if he is a Bolshevik divisional commander. Moreover, the divisional commander is a hero not simply because he is the main character in the film, and has a past as a hero of the revolution. More important is the fact that he wins a moral duel, if not with the times in which he is currently living—though this question is posed as well—then at least with the character who acts as his antithesis.

- Excerpt from “Nikita Mikhalkov and Burnt by the Sun: A Monarchist Film-Maker Confronts Humane Socialism,” by Ludmila Bulavka; New Left Review, Vol. a, 1997. Full article can be accessed on Questia.

A psychoanalytic interpretation of the film Burnt by the Sun Nikita Mikhalkov’s (1994) reveals the admiration and the homosexual love of Dimitri for Sergei Kotov. Out of castration anxieties and fear of dependency, Dimitri transforms his love object Sergei into a fetish. This makes him feel as if he could handle his relationship with the love object. When Dimitri is confronted with the fact that he has no power over Sergei, he decides to destroy his creation (i.e., himself). There no longer exists the possibility to establish human relations, maintain them, and feel empathy with the other. The narcissistic cathexis of the object and the dissolution of object love is one of the powerful psychological presuppositions for Stalinist terror.

- Abstract from article “The Creation of the Fetish, as illustrated in Nikita Mikhailkov’s Burnt by the Sun”, Mechthild Zeul, in Psychoanalytic Psychology, vol. 19 (2002)

Essay Fire and Water Imagery in Nikita Mikhalov’s Burnt by the Sun, unattributed author, found on the University of Miami-Ohio website.

Strange coincidence: did the makers of this Discover Card commercial watch Burnt by the Sun?

Nikita Mikhalkov, excerpted from interview November 29 2000 at the University of Buffalo

My desire to make this film came in response to all the accusations throughout history brought upon my country, accusations made without realizing what was happening at the time. What right do we have, looking with the hindsight of the 1990′s, to analyze any of the past eras and condemn them for what happened then? In 1917, the Bolsheviks condemned all that had preceded their revolution, and likewise the “New Bolsheviks” of the 1991 uprising have decided to portray anything that happened after 1917 as horrible.

With this film, I am not looking to judge an era, I am only trying to show through a tragic perspective, the charm of a simple existence: ofchildren continuing to be born, of people loving each other, living their life’s moments, and having faith that all that was happening around them was for the best. People cannot be blamed for believing, but one can blame those who misled them. How can one accuse someone of stealing his own life? These are the reasons I have tried to understand this era. I am trying to say that we have all been victims and actors of what has happened, victims of what we created.

Rustam Ibragimbekov, co-writer of Burnt by the Sun, excerpted from interview in Azerbaijan Journal, Summer 1995:

These days so many people are acting like slaves. During the Soviet period, they were afraid to say anything and now with independence, they explode with accusations and curses. However bad or evil the system might have been, there were some absolutely remarkable things about our lives during that period. We shouldn’t eliminate everything from our past, or as you say, “Throw the baby out with the bath water!” We can’t dump everything before acquiring new values to fill the void. To disregard and discount everything from the Soviet period would be Bolshevistic. Today, there are some “so-called” democrats who are trying to do just that. In my opinion, we have to deal objectively with the previous system. Though it may have been monstrous, it contributed many positive dimensions to our lives.

We don’t say it directly in the film, but it’s there. We’ve tried to create an aura of sympathy for our characters. Today, you can find many pieces of art or literature where communists are depicted as villains or fools. That was the same approach used to describe capitalists and landowners during socialism. Our film doesn’t do that. We shouldn’t forget everything and plunge blindly into the future. Reactionism and forgetfulness are the most disastrous flaws in human nature. Human behavior is much more complex.

Nikita Mikhalkov

Wikipedia entry

From Nikita Mikhalkov: Between Nostalgia and Nationalism, By Birgit Beumers, 2005, I.B.Tauris:

Mikhalkov belongs to the mainstream of Soviet and Russian cinema rather than auteur cinema; this partly explains the relative lack of critical attention to the body of his work when compared with the auteur film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky. Furthermore, MIkhalkov never experienced serious difficulties with the Soviet authorities, and was therefore often perceived as an ‘official’ artist at times when dissident artists aroused greater interest from Western critics. The fact that Mikhalkov never had problems with the censorship – at least, none of his films was banned – was often attributed to his highly privileged Soviet family background. Mikhalkov has always been a controversial figure, swivelling between officialdom and the intelligentsia’s dissidence, between popular and auteur cinema, between patriotism and nationalism, artist and poet, storyteller and moralist, director and public figure, aesthete and politician. It is this ambiguity that makes Mikhalkov a figure who is admired and shunned at once, savaged by critics and loved by audiences,despised by some colleagues and revered by others.

The overall argument of this volume is that Mikhalkov performs a shift from a nostalgia for a past that is openly constructed as a myth to a nostalgia for a past that pretends to be authentic. I contend that this move is a result of the collapse of the Soviet value system – a system that encouraged myth making – and the director’s inability to face up to the reality of the 1990s, when he turned both past and present into a myth that he himself mistook for real and authentic. Thus Mikhalkov’s films of the 1990s feed into the longing for the myth making of th epast that was a major divine force in popular taste in the post-Soviet period, placing Mikhalkov firmly within the popular mainstream but outside the field of innovative film-making.

Sequel

Twitch, June 28 2007:

Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov has been all but unheard from since winning a Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1995 for Burnt By The Sun but the man is poised to make a return to the public eye here with a sequel to his best known work. Well, maybe.

Why maybe? Well … the film was shot in 2005 and has been in post production hell ever since. It’s currently listed for a 2007 release in France by Canal+ but when something’s been stalled out for this long, I’ll believe that when I see it. Plus, as anybody who’s seen the first film will attest, it’s kind of hard to make a sequel to a film after killing off virtually your entire cast of characters in the first which means this will either be a sequel in name only or will involve a healthy amount of historical revision to the events of the first and all signs point to the latter. Which is going to make for some angry fans.

You can find details, production stills, and a behind the scenes video here.

Excerpts from “Putin’s Last Realm to Conquer: Russian Culture,” by James Hill for The New York Times:

The Kremlin is courting some big-name cultural figures like Nikita Mikhalkov, the once-pampered enfant terrible filmmaker of Soviet days, today a big promoter of Mr. Putin.

There are signs of a backlash. In late October, a television debate program pitted Viktor Yerofeyev, a prominent Russian author, against Mr. Mikhalkov, who with a few others wrote a fawning letter, supposedly in the name of tens of thousands of artists, asking the president to stay in power beyond the constitutional limit of his term in March. “Have you heard of cult of personality?” Mr. Yerofeyev asked him.

Mr. Mikhalkov fumbled. Mr. Yerofeyev won the program’s call-in vote by a large margin, an event almost unheard of on today’s Kremlin-controlled television.

If you can call any television debate show a touchstone in recent Russian cultural history, that was certainly it. The show’s rating went through the roof. Dozens of writers and artists signed petitions lambasting Mr. Mikhalkov for presuming to speak for them. A battle line over culture had clearly been drawn…

Mr. Mikhalkov, on the set of his next movie, which is a military base outside Moscow, responded to these predictions with disdain: “Listen to what’s on television and radio now and tell me, what limitations do you see?” He tried not to look exasperated. Artists are perfectly free, he said. “My view is simply that the modus operandi of Russia is enlightened conservatism,” meaning hierarchical, religion-soaked, tradition-loving…Mr. Mikhalkov, on the military base outside town, was directing a sequel to his Oscar-winning “Burnt by the Sun” the other day. He was surrounded by actors in Soviet uniforms stomping their feet against the freezing cold in deep trenches dug into a vast, lonely snow-covered field. The sky was leaden gray. Aside from the Putin re-election letter, Mr. Mikhalkov has raised eyebrows lately by filming a pro-Putin election advertisement, and he produced a gushing birthday tribute to the president, which was shown on state-run television. He retreated to a trailer to hash over the debate, which, even as someone who loves attention as much as power, obviously continued to gall him.

“Why are people frightened of patriotism?” he asked. He wanted to differentiate it from xenophobia. “There’s a lot of worrying among the intelligentsia about teaching the basics of Orthodox culture. It’s a hysteria.”

Russia needs authority, he said. “Maybe for the so-called civilized world this sounds like nonsense. But chaos in Russia is a catastrophe for everyone. Even if Putin isn’t always the most democratic, he should nevertheless remain in power because we don’t know that the new president won’t begin by undoing what Putin has done.”