This Russian-French movie won the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 1995, but is only being released on DVD in the UK this month.
Burnt by the Sun (Russian: Ð£Ñ‚Ð¾Ð¼Ð»Ñ‘Ð½Ð½Ñ‹Ðµ ÑÐ¾Ð»Ð½Ñ†ÐµÐ¼) is set in Russia in 1936. Stalin has been in power for almost a decade. Colonel Serguei Kotov (Nikita Mikhalkov, also directing and co-writing) is living the good life in his dacha with his much younger wife, Maroussia (Ingeborga Dapkunaite), and their adorable six-year-old daughter, Nadia (Nadezhda Mikhalkova, acting opposite her real father).
Kotov is a medalled veteran of the1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the ensuing Russian Civil War, which ended in 1923. He has the number of Stalin’s private line, and is respected by everyone who lives near his dacha. It would seem that this hero’s comfortable life is unassailable. The cinematography captures the lush, summery colours of the scenery around the house, and the slightly faded, but still fine hues of the clothes that Kotov’s wife’s once-aristocratic extended family wear. It’s all dancing round the piano, sitting down to meals and playing with little Nadia. Also, despite the age gap, Kotov and his wife seem to truly be in love.
In Stalin’s Russia, not even the war hero of olden times is safe from the Great Purge
However, the threat to this carefree idyll comes in the form of Maroussia’s ex-lover, and Kotov’s ex-subordinate. Mitya, played by long-time Mikhalkov collaborator, Oleg Menshikov, turns up and charms his way back into the household. Despite his easy way with Nadia, there’s something up. He stares coldly at Kotov. He keeps reminding Maroussia of their past. In just one day, Mitya destorys everything that Kotov has built up. In Stalin’s Russia, it seems, not even the war hero of olden times is safe from the Great Purge. Burnt by the Sun is slow-moving, which makes Kotov’s sudden realisation of his vulnerability at the end all the more shocking and disorientating. Mitya has been working for the Secret Police, and his mission at Kotov’s house was partly on orders from Stalin, and partly out of a need for revenge.
Yet, Kotov is not entirely innocent either – his past actions cost Mitya years of his life. From this plot outline, you might think that there is no one to sympathise with in the film. You’d be wrong. Mikhalkov’s film presents us with rounded characters, flaws and all, with whom we can’t help but empathise. Gradually, those flaws appear larger and less forgivable, although the lack of choice involved is always apparent.