A romantic love scene between Maroussia and her husband is interrupted by ...

... a shot of a black limousine waiting at the edge of the forest.

A diffused light gives the lovemaking an additional sense of timeless romance.

Two young people having the same educational background and sharing the same love for music: Mitia plays the piano while Maroussia performs a cancan.

The Cancan-scene as recreated on stage. © Catherine Ashmore

Unable to share Maroussia’s cultural interests, Kotov starts eating the soup alone.

In the film, Kotov spends many moments with the family. He appears not so much an outsider …

… as in the play where he is often placed in the background. © Catherine Ashmore

Maroussia’s uncle is compared to a figure in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Showing characters nostalgic for a past destroyed by the revolution, the film and the play multiply references to the playwright.

Some members of the family still wearing their night gowns embody the Chekhovian character who leads a life of idleness.

A past moment of a happiness: Kotov and Maroussia dancing the tango.

Kotov looks proudly at a picture showing him with Stalin in whom he still trusts.

Stalin’s monumental portrait dominating the landscape: the picture is the expression of power and total control.

The man who knew too much: the truck driver ...

... recognizing Kotov becomes a victim of the State.

“Evening Bells”: In complete oblivion of Kotov’s and of their own fate, Maroussia’s family sings the farewell song for Mitia and Kotov.

Throughout the film the death motif of the tango is associated with the child and the image of hope and innocence.

The political invading the private

The shot of a black limousine waiting at the edge of the forest appears between images of the married couple who have just been making love. It turns a moment of tenderness into doubt. The terror is prepared in secrecy, hidden from view despite the first show trials which took place in August 1936, a few weeks after the events described by Mikhalkov. In the film, Stalin and the state are made present through dialogue, pictures and the radio. In the first sequence, we hear the voice of Andrey Vyshinsky praising Stalin. Vyshinsky was the State Prosecutor of the USSR in the first show trial against Grigory Zinoviev and several other prominent Bolsheviks. His voice creates the link between the assassination of Leningrad’s party chief Sergei Kirov in December 1934 and Kotov’s tragic fate. It also points to the Great Purge, which started a year after the events in the film.

Leonid Nikolaev, the gunman who shot Kirov, was arrested at the murder scene at the Smolny Institute in Leningrad. Unemployed and in financial difficulties, this expelled Party member was well-known to the NKVD because of various petty offences. There are, however, still today rumours that the dictator, jealous of the popular local party leader, was himself behind the assassination. The NKVD had apparently armed and paid the killer.[3] [open notes in new window] Moreover, the murder occurred after Kirov’s refusal to replace his friend Teodor Medved as the head of the Leningrad NKVD with Grigory Yevdokimov, a man close to Stalin. With Stalin’s approval, the NKVD neglected Kirov’s protection, withdrawing several of his bodyguards. Kirov’s opposition to Stalin’s most extreme positions might have been a reason for his assassination.

Given Kirov’s growing popularity and the dictator’s fear of losing control of the party apparatus, it is possible that Stalin was implicated in the killing, approved or even ordered it, and at least facilitated it. Stalin is, in fact, the person who benefited most from the killing. Furthermore, the assassination gave him a pretext to get rid of other opponents. Found guilty of "moral complicity," Zinoviev and some other Bolshevik leaders were arrested in December 1934 and put on trial in January 1935 without being sentenced. The show trial in August 1936 of Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Abram Prighozin and thirteen other party members set the stage for the subsequent trials during the Great Purge. The defendants were charged with conspiracy against Stalin and other leading figures such as Kaganovich, Molotov, Kalinin and Kirov. Even though there was no evidence to connect them with any plotting and with Kirov’s assassination, the sixteen men were sentenced to death and executed.[4]

Some historians trace the origins of the Great Purge back to Kirov’s assassination.[5] Others disagree with such a view, arguing that nationwide mass arrests and killings did not start in 1935 or 1936. (Figes 234-5) If Kotov is modelled on Kirov, he shares the destiny of the "Zinovievites" and many other old Bolsheviks, comrades-in-arms of Lenin and Stalin. Kotov’s popularity, made obvious by his portrait on the coin and on the uniforms of the young pioneers whose battalion bears his name, is a thorn in Stalin’s flesh. The power can only be in the hands of one man and it is Stalin’s portrait, larger-than-life, which expresses the leader’s overwhelming feeling of control and absolute power at the end of the film. In the film a surreal image, a monumental portrait of the dictator fixed to a tethered balloon, floats over the fields as if it dominates nature and mankind. In the play, a red light accompanied by the voice of the truck driver looking towards the sky and shouting: "Comrade Stalin!" alludes to this portrait and reminds the viewer of the shot in the film.[6] The truck driver’s cry is an expression of astonishment and fear. As he is a witness to government crime —he saw Kotov’s bloodstained face after the general had been brutalized by the NKVD guards — he must be silenced forever. Stalin’s power is such that the mere sight of his picture puts an end to a life.

In the film, a flashback interrupts the flow of images between the first sequence in Moscow and the first shots of the Kotov family in the dacha. In this flashback, Kotov and Maroussia perform a tango, Jerzy Petersburki’s "This is Our Last Sunday,"[7] near a pavilion while Nadia sits a little way off. The play starts with the tango performed by the couple in front of the dacha. Kotov and his wife are joined by the other inhabitants in a moment of joy abruptly terminated by the noise of the aeroplanes. The lazy summer afternoon contrasts with the violent end in which Kotov is severely beaten and the truck driver shot. The dacha, representing a safe place, cosiness and leisure, becomes the scene of political action and of death. The film contrasts the interior of the dacha, where most of the action takes place, with the shots of Moscow. It also contains images of the dacha’s surroundings. In the play, the film’s inner-outer dichotomy is mainly expressed by means of noises. The noise of the aeroplanes and the megaphone voice disturb the idyll in the dacha as if the noise of modernity were destroying the past the dacha stands for. The use of the noise as a signifier of the omnipresent state invading private space by means of the megaphone and the noise of the aeroplanes is a strategy used in the film too. The voices on the radio (not used in the play) and the megaphone voices wishing comrades a happy holiday, announcing a concert or the time for morning gymnastics structure the life of the people and remind them of their duties. The gas alarm, expressing the fear of an imperialist invasion, and the arrival of the pioneers are other signs of the outer world menacing the pastoral setting.

A Chekhovian atmosphere

"The past is all they have," says Maroussia in the play about her relatives, a sentence which immediately evokes a Chekhovian motif. Indeed, as in the film, the characters long for a past destroyed by the Revolution and compare themselves to figures in The Cherry Orchard.[8] As in a Chekhov play, the characters muse like people with nothing to do, continually referring to the lost world of the past.[9] They do not feast like Mrs. Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard on the eve of the auction. Unable to cope with the present, they have a distorted view of reality. In complete oblivion of Kotov’s and their own fate, they trust Mitia, who passes off the NKVD agents as musician colleagues. Mitia embodies another perfect Chekhovian character. Rather like Konstantin in THE SEAGULL, he is doomed to defeat. He has failed with love and ruined his career as a musician. He has lost his fatherland and wasted his talents. At the end, he commits suicide, as Konstantin does.

Mikhalkov’s mise en scène recaptures perfectly an atmosphere of idleness in the countryside on a summer day. Despite the frequent utilisation of close and medium-close shots, the framing of the interiors relies on theatrical effects. Half-open doors and panes of glass between rooms allow the viewer to look from one room into another. As on a stage, the characters enter and leave while the camera does not necessarily follow them. The sequences in the small building contribute to the intimate character of a Kammerspiel. The theatrical, non-cinematic use of the actors is another reminder of a theatre tradition to which Mikhalkov refers. Slightly exaggerated facial expressions and mannered gestures are characteristic of the film.

Not unlike Chekhov and typical of Mikhalkov’s poetic realism and pastoral style, Flannery recreates an atmosphere of listlessness, a feeling of loss, and reflects on the inability of human beings to communicate with one another. The stage of the Lyttelton Theatre is dominated by the wooden dacha constructed centre-stage on a rotating platform allowing consecutive scenes to take place in different rooms: the music room, the dining room, and the office. The scenery, completed by the rows of trees on either side of the dacha, looks like the quintessential Chekhovian setting. Here the play follows the film’s portrayal of Chekhovian characters, referring to the events, society, culture and mentality of the 1930s in which customs and habits of the old society continued in many households (Figes 55). Nothing seems to have changed. Even the chocolate which Mitia hid on top of the bookcase on New Year’s Eve 1928 is still there (another detail to be found in both film and play). In the film the past is also evoked by photographs. In the play (as in the film) dialogues and references to classical music establish a link to the lost time.

This link to the past, in the film and the play, can be interpreted in individual and collective terms. The ways in which the play makes use of sound are illustrated when Mitia, lost in thought, is alone on stage. The juxtaposition of different layers of sound — voices and music — recalls his youth spent with Maroussia and her family. Although sound is generally used by Davies as an expression of the outer world, here it manifests the character’s memories and the expression of his inner feelings. By stressing an underlying melancholy, the mise en scène reveals the gap between the past and the present, between the bourgeois lifestyle and the ways of the new rulers. Other mise en scène devices bring to light the characters’ different attitudes. The members of Maroussia’s family, still wearing their nightgowns, are contrasted with Kotov, who, blaming his wife’s bourgeois family for its passivity, appears fully dressed: the family taking breakfast contrasts with the general working at his desk.

Both Mikhalkov and Flannery add a good dose of humour and irony to the themes borrowed from Chekhov, who intended The Cherry Orchard to be seen as a comedy. Konstantin Stanislavski, who was the first to stage the play, put the focus on tragedy. Performances of Chekhov’s plays have relied until today on an interpretation as tragedy. Not unlike The Cherry Orchard, Burnt by the Sun also contains elements of farce, reminiscent of the play’s double nature. The howling maid, Mokhova, looking for her pills which Maroussia’s grandmother has thrown away is part of this strategy. The sequence at the lake recalls Renoir’s "poetic realism" as revisited by Majakowski:  the very fat woman falling from a stretcher, men and dogs wearing gas masks during the gas attack evacuation practice, Mitia playing a dead man while the Civil Defence Unit manager has the empty beach to himself. Absurdity reigns over the idyll. There are several other humorous dialogues and comic moments which Flannery keeps in his play. For example, the cheeky Nadia asks one of the NKVD agents: "Have you ever been to the zoo?" and adds, "Why did you leave — didn’t they feed you properly?"

Such light-hearted moments evoke the comedies and musicals produced in the USSR during the thirties. Disguising the harsh reality, they signify a widespread optimism as well. In contrast to the escapist films of the thirties, Mikhalkov recalls peaceful moments in times of terror by pointing to their fragility. Mitia asks everybody to sing a song before his departure. The farewell sequence contains several comic elements. Kotov and the family sing together. Kotov, however, laughing and grimacing, pokes fun at the love for music that Maroussia and her family express once again. In the play, the comical moments are created when the NKVD-agents, the supposed musicians, are forced by Maroussia’s family to perform "Evening Bells" with them. Comedy brings relief but is used to create serious moments. Thomas Moore’s lyrics are about the memory of a happy past and a youth which is forever gone. The last farewell of a man before he dies counterbalances the humorous moments. It foreshadows Kotov’s death and Mitia’s suicide. Depicted as the peasant who is the victim of both his own stupidity and his government[10], the truck driver combines comic and tragic elements. Unable to decipher the faded address on the piece of paper he forgot to take out of his shirt pocket before the shirt was washed, he drives around in circles, desperately looking for the right destination for his delivery.

The gas alarm sequence recalls the fear of a fascist invasion. Indeed, the sixteen "Zinovievites" were accused of having plotted with Nazi Germany. The threat of war served as a reason for Stalin’s terror in order to consolidate power because of an impending war. The sequence at the lake becomes a visual explanation of terror and paranoia. The human beings, their faces hidden by the gas masks, look like aliens. They run around in panic, trying to hide, and the camera movements and the editing give rise to a feeling of chaos. The gas alarm sequence with its grotesque elements challenges the idea of war as an excuse for the purges. Moreover, it reveals the paranoid fear of enemies as part of Stalin’s character, his policy intruding into the lives of the citizens and eventually destroying them.

The strange phenomenon of the fireball contributes to this view. There is one long moment in which a fireball, coming from nowhere, enters the house, hits the walls, and destroys the glass on a photo. Outside it kills a falcon and burns down a tree in the wood. Appearing and disappearing mysteriously, this omen of impending trouble is ignored by the inhabitants of the dacha, who are preoccupied. In a newspaper report the appearance of the fireball is explained as a phenomenon "caused by a well-organised diversionary programme on behalf of imperialist terrorists." The quote comments ironically on the official statements which turn the supernatural into a political tool and make a propaganda weapon out of the most unbelievable events.

However, the interpretation that the purges of 1937 and 1938 could be explained by the fear of war is not fully rejected. Memories of the German attack and the atrocities committed by the Germans during World War II still linger. The gas alarm could be understood as a rehearsal which nobody, except Stalin, was able to understand. And history has proved that his anxieties were not simply the fantasies of a dangerous mind.

The production at the National Theatre does not recreate any special effects. The only mention of the fireball is in the dialogue: the truck driver is reading the newspaper report. Remaining invisible, it appears even more like a mere invention of propaganda. In their stage representation of the gas alarm scene, the playwright and the director adopt Mikhalkov’s satirical approach without challenging its inherent ambiguities. The play relies, however, on a western view of Stalin which sees him less as a figure for rehabilitation than is the case in Russia. The view of Stalin as a saviour may not even be understood by a western audience. The gas alarm scene might therefore be mainly perceived as a critical approach to terror which puts an end to a moment of illusionary peace. As recreated by Flannery and Davies, it acquires a meaning which connects it much more with present-day Great Britain than with the ambiguous vision of Stalinist terror offered by the Russian director.

One might ask why the play imitates Chekhov or relies so much on a Chekhovian atmosphere so that it becomes a signifier of Russia and Russian culture, as this risks reproducing stereotypes. The play is saved from being a mere cliché by some original details. At first sight it is a remnant of naturalism, denying all evolution in the history of theatre. Revealing its own mechanisms, however, what seems to be naturalism points to the illusion behind all theatrical productions. This applies to the scene at the lake, filmed by Mikhalkov in a natural setting. On the stage the setting is suggested by dialogue, a few bathing requisites, and a hedge between the dacha and the proscenium, where the protagonists sunbathe.

There is one major difference between the film and its theatrical adaptation. Mikhalkov suggests from the very beginning that Mitia returns to the dacha ten years after his sudden departure because of a special assignment which in 1936, in the period of political repression, would very probably be an arrest. The film’s first shots in Mitia’s flat in Moscow allow the viewer to anticipate his mission, creating a particular tension which is not found in the play, where Mitia’s role as an NKVD agent is not explained until the end. From the very beginning, the film connects Mitia with death. The camera frames a razor blade when his phone rings. A few moments later Mitia is playing Russian roulette. In the sequence at the lake, Mitia pretends to be drowning and frightens Maroussia. Such frequent allusions to death are not found in the play, which nevertheless builds up high tension by focusing on the emotions of the three main protagonists, Kotov, Mitia and Maroussia.

Other allusions to death are made in the dialogue and through the musical leitmotiv of the film, Petersburski’s tango. The tango is first associated with Kotov and Maroussia. Deriving from a musical tradition associated with the decadent world of the past, it bridges the old and new order and shows how much Kotov’s existence is built upon the ruins of the old order. In the film, however, it is Nadia who hums the melody and dances to the tune on several occasions. Nadia is the product of the marriage between old and new Russia, the marriage of a military man fighting for bolshevism and a woman still attached to the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia. The shots of the little girl associated with the farewell tango singing, "There would be no love," create a gap between her youth and innocence and the idea of loss and death. This presages her future. Her world will be annihilated: her father arrested and executed, her mother sent to a labour camp. At the end of the film, she hums the melody again while walking home happily, unaware of her father’s arrest and her family’s fate. The tango, known as the "Suicide Tango"[11] , is also linked with Mitia’s fate. The absence of love alluded to in the words gives a reason for his actions, driven by the feeling of loss and despair.

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