Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Burnt By the Sun

(Утомлённые солнцем, Russia, 1994)

Oscar for Best Foreign Language. It’s 1936, not long before the world would begin the Great Patriotic War. But in Russia another horror is well under way: the Great Purge, when Stalin eliminated most of the Red Army’s officers and as many as two million others. Basically, anyone who had any chance whatsoever of challenging the paranoid, psychotic monster. Colonel Kotov (played by the director, Nikita Mikhalkov) is a hero of the revolution, retired now to a dacha in the country with his much younger wife, his six-year-old daughter (played by his real-life daughter, Nadezhda), and other family members. They have a picnic and a row on the river, eat meals, sing and dance, and do all the other things people used to do before there was television and when there was nothing on the radio but lies about the glorious completion of the latest five-year plan. The Young Pioneers gather to serenade him, there is a gas-mask drill, a grapefruit-sized fireball drifts lazily through the house, they play a game of soccer, and … wait a sec, rewind there … a fireball, did you say? Well, yes, when it hits a tree it sets it on fire. What’s a fireball doing in this scene? I have no idea. Let’s just let it alone, okay? Let it drift into whatever place obscure cinematic symbols go to die …

There’s a weasel in the peaceful Bergman-esque henhouse, though, in the form of Mitia, a former lover of the Colonel’s wife, and now an agent for the NKVD. There is apparently a lot of back story here, and I didn’t get it all, but the outcome is that Mitia had come for Colonel Kotov. There will be no charges, no trial, he will simply be beaten until he admits to something, and then executed. That’s how it was done. His row of medals from the Revolution won’t protect him. He takes it like a good soldier, not telling his family they won’t be seeing him again. It’s very sad.

But the best parts of the movie are the scenes with the little girl, who is a wonder, particularly the ones with her father. I see that she’s currently at work on Burnt By The Sun II. It doesn’t really seem like a film that cries out for a sequel, but maybe there’s something there. She’d be about 20 by now.