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For more film reviews by Alan Stone, click here or choose from a list of

No Soul

Alan A. Stone

Burnt by the Sun won the Oscarfor best foreign language film this past year. When the award was announced, a Russian bear of a man, middle-aged and mustachioed, tossed a young girl overhis shoulder and strode triumphantly to the podium. Not yet having seen the movie, I found this celebratory performance somewhat inappropriate -- a doting Russian father sharing his moment of Hollywood glory with his little daughter. I put it down to Slavic histrionics, like Nikita Kruschev banging his shoe on the table at the UN. That Oscar night image of father and daughter was subsequently featured in the film's advertisements, and once you have seen Burnt by the Sun you will recognize that there could have been no more appropriate gesture. The film is about life during Stalin's reign of terror; but at its bitter-sweet, sentimental heart it is about that father and his daughter and their special lovefor each other.

The father -- well-known Russian film-maker Nikita Mikhalkov -- wrote, directed, and had the leading role of Colonel Kotov in Burnt by the Sun. The film is set in 1936 at the time of Stalin's purges, and the sinister "man of steel" looms over it, literally and figuratively. Whereas Stalin is ruthless and unpredictable, Kotov, his one-time comrade-in-arms, is a character to warm the heart of even the most disillusioned leftist. An earthy man of the people and hero of the Bolshevik Revolution, Kotov is a version of "historical" man promised by Marx. He has risen from rude beginnings, and been transformed by Socialism into the man Stalin was supposed to be: the good soldier who loves his people, his revolution, and his motherland. In the course of one long summer day, the unsuspecting Kotov will lose everything he holds dear, including his Socialist Revolution and his beloved daughter.

This is the first time Mikhalkov has taken a major role in one of his own films. And Mikhalkov's co-star and the inspiration for the film is his daughter Nadia, whom he tossed over his shoulder that Oscar night, just as he does at several critical moments in the film. He explains: "I decided to play this role for the unique reason of helping the performance of my daughter, Nadia ... certain scenes being especially delicate on an emotional level." In several such scenes, father and daughter express and demonstrate their love for each other; in these exquisite moments life puts its gloss on art. Mikhalkov also made his daughter comfortable by calling her by her real name in the film, and Mikhalkov says "I shot this film very quickly because I wanted my six year old daughter to play the role. . . . Children grow quickly and lose the tenderness, the simplicity, and the charm their youth carries." How true, and what also often gets lost is that innocent but sensual love between father and daughter. It is almost as if Mikhalkov made this film to memorialize those ephemeral years of absolute love when father and daughter each believe the other can do no wrong.

When they stood at the podium that Oscar night, both wreathed in smiles, Mikhalkov acknowledged that his daughter had brought him luck. She seems to have done more than that: she inspired his greatest success. In every respect -- as actor, director, and screenplay writer -- he has outdone himself. There is no denying Mikhalkov's penchant for Slavic histrionics: it was on display Oscar night, and it is all too obvious in most of his previous films. But this time his characters have psychological complexity and his screenplay gives every heightened gesture a sustaining density of meanings. Mikhalkov's image of the father and daughter deserves a better place in Western iconography. In millions of sacred paintings, the Holy Mother gazes lovingly at her Son. Hegel, in his neglected writings on aesthetics, claimed that those sacred Renaissance paintings brought the perfecting inspiration of spirit to the lonely beauty of the classical Greek art "object." This spirit of love invites the beholder to enter into the "subjectivity" of art, to become an emotional participant in what he beholds. "Love," said Hegel, "supplies both the form and the content of romantic art." He was speaking of love between Mother and Son. Burnt by the Sun celebrates the possibility that love between father and daughter might have the same sacramental power. This celebration might help to account for the film's enthusiastic American reception. Instead of embracing love between fathers and daughters, we have become almost puritanically obsessed with sexual abuse. A father who took a bath with his six year old daughter would risk being charged with a criminal offense; an admission that he took sensual pleasure in it would land him in an institution for the sexually dangerous. Mikhalkov imagines a different world. One of the first scenes in Burnt by the Sun takes place in a small, rustic steam hut. Colonel Kotov, naked to the waist, lies face down on a table, his daughter fully naked, lies on top of him. She beats his back with birch branches until she tires and lovingly rests her body on his. The beautiful young wife, half-naked herself, stands to one side smiling benevolently on their playful sensuality. It is difficult to imagine an American film-maker attempting such a scene of physical intimacy for fear of being denounced for sexual abuse or child pornography. What Mikhalkov unexpectedly achieves is a vision of family love, erotic but neither depraved nor perverse.

Mikhalkov is not unsophisticated about contemporary puritanism. Aware that he is walking a fine line, he has set the scene in 1936, and there is no frontal nudity. Colonel Kotov is to be understood as a man of peasant origins who is living life to the fullest and is still innocently capable of enjoying these and all the other life-affirming natural pleasures of the flesh. The director, as though to anticipate an audience's reaction and underline his own intentions, has an elderly aunt complain about the little girl being taken into the steam hut with her parents.

Mikhalkov revels in his role as Kotov, and one has the feeling that in real life he indulges and adores this young daughter who brought him such good fortune. In fact, the handsome Mikhalkov has himself been indulged and lucky almost all his life. He was born in 1945 with the Soviet equivalent of a silver spoon in his mouth. His grandfather and great-grandfather, famous painters, had flourished under the czars. Some Russians say his mother was related to the Romanoffs, but his father, a writer of children's literature, picked the right side in the revolution, wrote the lyrics to the Soviet National Anthem, and was chairman of the Soviet Writers Union. The artistic and high-born Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky family did more than survive; they were members of the Soviet elite under Stalin and his successors. The fortunate Nikita Mikhalkov studied acting at the Stanislavsky theater Children's studio, made his film debut as an actor at age 16, and directed his first major Soviet film before turning 30. When the Soviet Union which had supported him collapsed he was able to find European backing and producers who gave him money and room to do what he wanted -- Dark Eyes, Close to Eden, and now Burnt by the Sun. Despite its exquisite touches and American success, however, the film is like a beautiful diamond with a serious flaw. It takes poetic license with Soviet history and politics in a way that equivocates and bewilders. Mikhalkov's ambitious purpose was to declare an amnesty for everyone who lived and died under the "sun" of the revolution: "we were all victims and actors." He has set his scene in 1936, and if he wants to declare an amnesty at that time then he must include members of the NKVD -- the secret police who did Stalin's dirty work. Presumably those have to be Red Russians, Communists who either were Stalinists or were willing to collaborate with Stalin. No such person appears in Burnt by the Sun. The NKVD agent who carries out Stalin's orders is a White Russian, the mysterious and apolitical Mitya -- a high-born artist and intellectual, he has a personal score to settle. Mikhalkov further confuses matters by making Kotov an almost-unblemished folk hero. The paragon Colonel, straining credulity, is a true-believing Bolshevik who seems to have emerged unscarred from the acid sea of Soviet politics.

At its best, this equivocating film casts a sentimental spell of forgiveness over one of the bloodiest political eras in the 20th century. Beautifully told, but horribly misleading, Burnt by the Sun tells us more about Mikhalkov's protected and privileged existence than about life in the Soviet Union. Its lovely nuances and compelling truths are literary and autobiographical, not historical or political. In the end, Burnt by the Sun holds its audience only by wrapping Kotov/Mikhalkov in his daughter's innocent arms. Mikhalkov's film begins in Moscow, in the earliest morning hours. A tired man enters an apartment where a servant, who has awaited him all night by the bolted door, greets him in French. The man, Mitya, obviously belonged to an upper-class family, and as he washes himself the elderly servant reads to him in broken Russian about a mysterious fireball that has appeared in various places and set off fires. The fireball is a kind of burning sun, a cinematic metaphor for Stalin's sudden purges that seem to come out of nowhere, threaten everyone, and strike even the most undeserving. We discover later that Mitya is a member of the NKVD; he will be the fireball that eradicates Colonel Kotov. The Moscow scene takes place at the beginning of a long summer day -- Kotov's last. Establishing the film's ominous tone, the mysterious Mitya puts a revolver to his head and seems to be deciding whether to kill himself. The scene shifts rapidly from that close-up of the suicidal man to a wheat field where Russian tanks are assembling for military maneuvers; if carried out, the maneuvers will destroy the village harvest. Only Colonel Kotov can put a stop to this patented Russian military stupidity. Summoned from the bath house where he has been luxuriating with his wife and daughter, our hero rides bareback on a farm horse to confront the Tank corps. At first he is unrecognized, but after threatening to wipe his ass with the young officer and borrowing a visored cap to show his profile, he establishes his authority and saves the wheat field. He also demonstrates his earthy good-will and common touch by tweaking the young officer's crotch. They are star-struck and honored by the Colonel's crude attentions; Kotov is their idol. Because the people love him, Stalin will have him purged.

Mikhalkov then turns his focus to the summer day at the Dacha where Colonel Kotov and his wife and daughter are surrounded by relatives and friends summoned from a Chekhov play. The Dacha is supposedly for all Soviet artists, but in reality it is the former home of Kotov's wife and her family who remain there under the aegis of the all-powerful Colonel. Mikhalkov's camera lingers over the elderly characters, giving each a chance to establish an identity. They are artistic, francophonic Slavs who belonged to the old order and still regret the passing of cultural refinement. But they are all old and harmless while Kotov, his young wife, Maroussia, and his daughter are the vital element. The Colonel lacks cultural refinement and speaks no French, but has the place of honor on the rocking chair throne. Mitya, who will appear shortly disguised as a mad old man, will disrupt this balance.

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.

It is generally a mistake to believe you have found the movie-maker in his movie. But Burnt by the Sun is the ultimate ego trip. Mikhalkov as writer, director, and star has thrown himself consciously and unconsciously into this movie. It is difficult not to see the world of the Dacha as taken from his own family's privileged life as members of the Soviet elite. And Mitya and Kotov seem to be the two sides of the Mikhalkov who made the film. Certainly Mitya, the artist from an upper-class family clinging to the bourgeois artistic tradition while he works for the State, is the Mikhalkov of his earlier films. And Kotov, the celebrity hero as indulgent father, is the Mikhalkov of Oscar night.

Mitya's arrival at the Dacha threatens Kotov in a way he recognizes and in a way he does not. Mitya was his young wife's first great love; knowing that, Kotov is threatened by the wit, culture, and sexuality of the younger man. Will the Colonel now be cuckolded? During lunch, Mitya tells Nadia a fairy tale which the adults in the Dacha and the audience know is the true story of how he had first come to that Dacha as a student artist and fallen in love with Marioussia, and how Kotov, then a member of the NKVD, had sent him away and forced him to become a spy. It seems this story will cost Kotov his young wife's love. But Kotov tells Maroussia his own version of a fairy tale about how people like Mitya had a choice. He clearly wins that struggle and, in a last moment of triumph, beds his wife to their mutual satisfaction. As the flushed and gratified young wife descends the stairs, Mitya asserts his unrecognized NKVD authority and sends her after the Colonel. The Colonel, almost too bravely, accepts his death sentence and Mitya agrees to tell no one else in the Dacha what has occurred. The day winds itself down as the Colonel had planned, and the car with three loutish NKVD enforcers arrives to take Kotov away.

In the final scenes, the many seemingly disconnected strands are woven together. The lost truck driver recognizes his hero Kotov, understands what is happening to him, and is therefore murdered by Mitya. The fireball suddenly strikes a tree and it goes up in flames. A huge likeness of Stalin on an enormous red banner seems to rise up from the ground and looms over the road and the countryside. This icon has come from the mysterious tower and is carried aloft by a festival balloon. The NKVD car moves beneath Stalin's huge likeness, and inside the car we see Kotov bloodied and beaten, his arms handcuffed behind his head by the NKVD thugs. He stares defiantly at Mitya, but then begins to howl in misery; he is a beaten man. And in the final scene the circle of victimization closes: we see Mitya back in his Moscow apartment lying in a tub of water. Another "victim and actor," he has slit his wrists and is slowly dying.

Sidney Lumet, the Hollywood film maker once said that in a drama the characters are more important than the plot and in a melodrama the plot is more important than the characters. Burnt by the Sun moves between the categories of drama and melodrama and little Nadia is the mediating element.

When the shiny NKVD car and its thugs arrive at the Dacha, the outside world signals the end of the Kotov family drama. But little Nadia has no understanding of the outside world and cannot recognize that it is about to destroy her Eden of innocent pleasures. She greets the car and its thugs with seductive overtures, and boldly tries to wangle a ride. This of course only heightens the tension. Mikhalkov uses Nadia throughout the film for this purpose. Her innocence, which Mitya and even his NKVD thugs respect, allows the plot to sustain and elaborate its psychological impact. The audience understands what the child does not -- that Mitya's fairy tale is true and that Nadia's fairy tale existence is about to end. Some may feel that Mikhalkov prolongs this emotional intensity beyond an audience's capacity to tolerate the pathos. But the almost musical ingenuity and scope of his screenplay save him. When Stalin's image suddenly rises over the bloody deeds of Mitya and his thugs, it is like a symphonic cadenza completing an earlier and unfinished theme. The problem with this film lies not in its construction nor in its bitter-sweet sentimental heart. The problem is in Mikhalkov's escapist politics. Unlike his older brother, Andrei Konchalovsky, a film maker who ran into trouble with Soviet censors, Nikita has always known which side his talent was buttered on. (The brothers divided up their hyphenated Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky name to establish their separate identities.) Nikita's pre-Glasnost films contained nothing that would offend the apparatchicks. His first noteworthy film, Slave of Love, a self-professed melodrama, was about a company of film-makers during the October Revolution. Lenin's wife, Madam Krupskaya who was in charge of the Soviet film industry would have given it her "agit-prop" seal of approval. It glorified the Bolsheviks.

Although there are erudite Soviet film critics who claim to find signs of opposition in his pre-Glasnost films, he has never shown any obvious evidence of being a man with any political fire in his belly. Now that he is free to say anything he wants, it appears that he has nothing to say about Soviet politics. Burnt by the Sun has a human heart but it has no soul.

Originally published in the October/November 1995 issue of Boston Review



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