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Film: Burnt by the Sun

Burnt by the Sun (Утомлённые солнцем, Soleil trompeur) is a 1994 Russian drama by Nikita Mikhalkov set in one day in the 1930s, focusing on the effect of the dictatorship of Josef Stalin on a Red Army officer. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, one of only three in Russian to do so, the other two being War and Peace and Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears.

The Soviet Union, summer, 1936. Comdiv Sergei Petrovich Kotov, his wife Maroussia (Ingeborga Dapkunaite), and their daughter Nadia are relaxing in a banya, when they are suddenly interupted. A peasant from the local collective farm explains that the Soviet Army's tanks are about to crush the wheat harvest as part of general maneuvers. Although annoyed to be bothered during his vacation, Kotov rides on horseback to where the tank crews are confronting outraged peasants.

At first, a tank officer is enraged when Kotov curses him out. Then, however, Kotov borrows a Commissar Cap and the surrounding tank crews realize in horror that they are addressing a senior Old Bolshevik and legendery hero of the Russian Civil War. Kotov demands the radio receiver and speaks directly to Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky. As the tank crews listen in rapt admiration, Kotov familiarly addresses the Marshal as, "Misha," and pursuades him to hold maneuvers elsewhere.

Although also impressed, Maroussia teases her husband for being "coarse." Nadia, however, does not agree and the happy family returns to their country dacha. There, they join Maroussia's relatives, a large and eccentric family of Chekhovian aristocrats.

Into this idyllic setting walks Mitya (Oleg Menshikov), an ex-nobleman and veteran of the anti-communist White Army. In addition, Mitya was also Maroussia's fiance before his sudden disappearance in 1923. He is joyfully embraced by the family and introduced to Nadia as "Uncle Mitya." Maroussia is left feeling deeply conflicted, as Mitya's departure led her to self mutilation and at least one suicide attempt.

However, it soon becomes clear that despite his humorous, friendly nature, Mitya has returned with a secret agenda. He now works for the Soviet political police, or NKVD, and has arrived to arrest Comdiv Kotov for involvement in a non-existent conspiracy.

This is revenge to some extent, as the reason why he left Maroussia was that Kotov forcibly conscripted him into the CHEKA, the predecessor of the NKVD. As a result, Mitya detests Kotov, whom he blames for taking away Maroussia, his faith, his love for Russia, and his profession as a pianist. Kotov, however, comments about Mitya's duties in Paris, where, posing as a musician, he fingered eight White Army Generals to the NKVD. All were kidnapped, smuggled to the Soviet Union, and shot without trial. As a result, Kotov accuses Mitya of being "a whore" whose loyalties were "bought."

Kotov is also certain that Mitya's plans to arrest him are nothing more than a personal vendetta. Citing his enormous popularity and his close relationship with Stalin, Kotov tells Mitya indignantly that the regime will never dare to touch him. Seething with hatred, Mitya vows to repeat these words to him in the Lubyanka prison after he confesses to false charges of espionage, treason, and plotting to murder Stalin. He further adds that, if Kotov will not confess under torture, threats to his wife and daughter should easily do the trick. Enraged, Kotov punches him in the face. As soon as Nadia returns, however, they continue their charade of friendship.

Eventually, however, a black car with NKVD agents arrives to arrest the Comdiv. Meanwhile, a group of Young Pioneer children arrives at the dacha to pay tribute to Kotov as a hero of the Revolution and the Civil War. In a deeply ironic moment, Kotov leads them all in an oath of absolute loyalty to Stalin and the Party as Mitya looks on. Moments later, Kotov is summoned to the car.

Even then, the charade continues and Nadia is even allowed to ride part of the way. Thinking nothing is amiss, she kisses her father and Mitya goodbye and walks home. Meanwhile, Kotov's cool, officer's pride remains unshaken. Certain that he can turn the tables on his captors by calling Stalin's private number, he taunts them about the coming destruction of their careers.

Then, however, the NKVD agents find the road blocked by the truck of a peasant who has gotten lost while trying to make a delivery. When Kotov tries to leave the car to give the peasant directions, the NKVD agents batter him to a pulp and shackle his hands. Then, certain that he was sent to rescue Kotov, the NKVD agents shoot the horrified peasant on the spot.

As the car drives past the peasant's corpse, a bloodied Kotov realizes in horror where the decision to arrest him must have come from. With his faith in the Soviet system shattered, Kotov sobs inconsolably. Mitya, who has obviously seen this happen to many other men, remains unmoved. The car drives on until a massive poster of Stalin shields it from view.

Soon after, Mitya lies bleeding to death in the bathtub of his apartment overlooking the Moscow Kremlin. Having slashed his wrists, he feebly whistles the suicide tango, To ostatnia niedziela. At last, Mitya's whistling ceases.

As Nadia skips home across a field of wildflowers, a postscript is superimposed. Comdiv Sergei Petrovich Kotov "confessed" to all charges and was shot in August 1936. Maroussia was also arrested and died in the GULAG in 1940. Nadia was arrested with her mother, but lived to see all three sentences overturned during the Khrushchev thaw. Having inherited her mother's musical gifts, Nadia Kotova works as a teacher in Kazakhstan. The postscript ends with the words, "This film is dedicated to all who were burnt by the sun of the Revolution."

The title derives from a popular 1930s song composed by Jerzy Petersburski. Originally the Polish tango To ostatnia niedziela, it became popular in the Soviet Union with the new Russian lyrics as Утомлённое солнце (Utomlyonnoye solntse, Weary Sun). The song is actually heard repeatedly in the film; director Mikhalkov stated in 2007 that he learned of the song from his elder brother Andrei Konchalovsky's 1979 film Siberiade and jokingly compared this to the fact that, when a boy, he once stole some money from his brother.

The title also refers to a mysterious orb of light, similar to ball lightning, that appears at various points in the film; the film states at the end that it is dedicated to those "burnt by the sun" of the Revolution ("weary with the sun" in the Russian title).

The character of Mitya bears some resemblance to Nikolai Skoblin, a former White Army General who spied on his former comrades in France during the 1930s. On September 22, 1937, Skoblin and his wife delivered General Evgenii Miller of the Russian All-Military Union to the NKVD. General Miller was drugged, kidnapped, and smuggled aboard a Soviet ship in Le Havre Harbor. The ship carried General Miller to the Soviet Union where he was tortured and shot.

Skoblin, however, fled to Republican Spain, which refused to extradite him for trial in France. He is believed to have been murdered in Spain on the orders of the NKVD rezident, General Aleksandr Mikhailovich Orlov. Skoblin's wife and handler, Nadezhda Plevitskaya, was arrested, convicted of kidnapping by a French court, and died in prison.

A sequel, a Great Patriotic War film called Burnt by the Sun 2, was filmed and competed for the Palme d'Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. Nikita Mikhalkov directed and reprised his role as Sergei Petrovich Kotov. Oleg Menshikov and Nadezhda Mikhalkova also reprised their roles from the original film. The film is Russian film's most expensive failure, having played to empty houses before being withdrawn from circulation.

Tropes

  • Book Ends: The story ends where it began, in Mitya's apartment, but this time he is slitting his wrists in the bathtub.

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alternative title(s): Burnt By The Sun
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