JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

The soldiers do not recognize the mighty man in civilian clothes. He is a distant but powerful image to them.

The idyll at the lake is disturbed Ö

Ö by the grotesque. The paranoid fear of war is recreated in satirical terms.

[NEEDS CAPTION]

The appearance of fireballs: a supernatural phenomenon used for propagandistic ends.

The bathing scene ...

... as recreated on stage. © Catherine Ashmore

The truck driver driving around in circles. a symbol of a nation looking for guidance.

The lost truck driver is a symbol of a nation looking for guidance.

At the beginning of the film, the peasants fear that the approaching tanks will destroy their fields.

Kotov arrives to secure them: he is a good father not only for Nadia but also for the people.

Kotov expresses once again his hope for a better future. Admiring Nadiaís feet he talks about his ideal vision of the Soviet State providing its citizens with shoes and roads to keep their feet soft.

On stage, Kotov, placed to the rear of the stage, listens to Mitiaís tale. © Catherine Ashmore

The balloon as a signifier of a nationís belief in progress.

Even in the limousine on his way to Moscow, Kotov is still confident of Stalinís friendship.

Beaten by the NKVD-agents, the crying Kotov must recognize his error.

 

 

Film, play and context

Like Vadim Abdrashitov’s Play for a Passenger (1995), which is set during the stagnation of the 1970s and 80s, Burnt by the Sun returns to the past in order to capture the spiritual crisis in the changing society of the 1990s. The filmic representations combine a reinterpretation of history since Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika with a discourse on individual choices and historical responsibility. Expressing anxieties about Russia’s national identity, Mikhalkov looks for parallels in the two decades, the 30s and the 90s.

The pioneer regiment bearing Kotovís name is praising him. It's a last moment of power and fame for him.
One of many details from the film which appeared in the play is ... ... how Kotov’s hand guides Nadia’s when she salutes.

With its reference tothe Stalin dictatorship, the film deals with a past that for a long time was taboo to articulate in the Soviet Union. Soviet cinema started to address this particular period in history from the eighties on in films such as Alexei German’s My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1983) and Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance (1985). Dealing with Stalinist terror in a direct (German’s film is set in 1934-35) or allegorical (Abuladze’s film lacks any specific reference to the thirties) manner, both films have a pessimistic perspective on the relation between history and the individual: characters no escape because they are victims of history.

After the dismantling of the USSR, Mikhalkov appealed for a "positive cinema," able to create a new hero, contribute to national identity and provide a positive view of Russia’s future.[12] [open notes in new window] In terms of marketing strategies, Mikhalkov’s aesthetic choices exploring the conventions of historical melodrama are a challenge to Hollywood’s attempt to succeed in the Russian film market. Opposing past and present, Burnt by the Sun reveals fears about the influence of U.S. popular culture. Kotov prefers the old-fashioned wooden bathhouse to the modern bathroom. His traditional step dance is contrasted with Mitia’s tap dance. Thinking that Russian cinema like Russian policy had lost its orientation, Mikhalkov sought to assume the vacant role of leader. He expressed his position artistically in The Barber of Siberia (1998), in which he idealizes the pre-revolutionary past and casts himself in the role of Tsar Alexander III, an authoritarian and reactionary ruler (Beumers 4). In Burnt by the Sun, however, Stalin is a father-figure who devours his own children.

If German’s film is "[...] a tribute to those who believed in a myth and perished with it" (Beumers 106), Mikhalkov’s film "[...] is a tribute to those who believed for too long in the ideals of the Revolution and were scorched by its flames." (Beumers 106) Kotov is not guilty, just blinded by the sun. In both the film and the play, he is portrayed as a "good Stalinist" rather than as a representative of a dictatorial system. Kotov is a jovial man, an ideal father for Nadia. He is also a father-figure for the peasants in the neighbourhood whose fields he protects.[13]

"That foot will always stay soft and beautiful. The comfortable roads the revolution is building will turn the USSR into a modern paradise."

This moment of tenderness between Kotov and Nadia in which the father expresses his admiration for his daughter and his trust in the communist system makes his idealism credible.

Mikhalkov plays Kotov with a bright smile and a boyish grin. Hinds’ presence and performance make him appear slightly more brutish. He smokes a cigar with one hand and his other hand skims along his wife’s buttocks. On stage there are of course no close shots to help the viewer focus on one actor. Hinds also has fewer scenes with the little girl playing his daughter and is, therefore, less able to reveal Kotov’s charisma and vulnerability. The theatre audience has to be very attentive to perceive his tenderness. When Kotov listens to Mitia’s tale, he is placed towards the rear of the stage, caressing Nadia, who is sitting on his lap. It is, however, his energy and his passion which make the character attractive. Kotov’s cry, "They are beautiful!" is the expression of the enthusiasm which marked the Stalinist period in the thirties. It was such a spirit of optimism that held the people together even in the shadow of terror. Both in the play and the film Kotov is so full of life that his breakdown when confronted with torture and arrest creates a particularly painful moment.

Mikhalkov questions Kotov’s belief in individual alternatives offered by the political system he is part of. At the end of the film (and the play), when the innocent truck driver is shot, the handcuffed and crying Kotov, his face streaming with blood, breaks down, realizing that he is a victim of his own actions, blinded by political and social illusions, instrumentalized by a force of evil that is destroying him and his beloved country.

Mitia was Kotov’s puppet, turned into a tool of violent repression. Kotov explains and justifies his manipulation, believing that he was acting for the greater good of his fatherland. The way the film and the play build empathy for him leaves no doubt about his trustworthiness. In Mitia’s tale, it is Kotov who is the intruder and evil-doer, having forced the young man into exile whilst establishing himself in his old home like a parasite. However, Mitia is as ambiguous as Kotov. Menshikov’s performance supports this ambiguity. Avoiding making the character more likeable, he plays Mitia as an arrogant man. However, an aura of sadness contributes to his vulnerability. Driven by jealousy, he carries out his murderous mission as personal revenge. He tries to protect Maroussia and Nadia but does not hesitate in his attack on and destruction of Kotov’s life and home. There can be no compassion with this chameleon-like character when he orders the killing of the truck driver in cold-blood or does not intervene when his helpless rival is brutally beaten. At the end, his death washes away his betrayal, and like the man whom he betrayed, he is both culprit and victim.

In his tale, Mitia depicts himself as a victim. Mitia accepts his fatal mission emotionlessly.
Mitia’s suicide ... ... a means to redeem his character.

Burnt by the Sun is a film/a play about loss in which there are no winners. Kotov is a man who believes in ideals, whereas Mitia lives through defeat. Neither Kotov (believing that he has a choice) nor Mitia (thinking that he has none) are in control of their destinies. Dealing with questions of guilt and responsibility, the film and the play present both of the men as victims. He really wanted to live, says Mitia about Iatim, his alter ego in the fairy tale he tells Nadia, addressing the adults to explain his disappearance. At the end, Kotov’s belief in having a choice is proved wrong whereas Mitia’s choice is between life and death.

Burnt by the Sun states Mikhalkov’s opinion that people cannot be blamed for believing, but they can blame those who misled them. The absence of love alluded to in the song defines the film’s theme and Mitia’s actions. Guilt and responsibility lie within the individual; history is determined by personal choices. According to the Russian director, nobody should feel guilty for what happened under Stalin because everyone is equally responsible. All are actors in what happened and victims of what they created. This view fits well with the Putin-era rehabilitation of the Communist past and of Stalin, a view which Mikhalkov supported.

Kotov has built up his life on the remains of the old regime. Mikhalkov would like to link socialist Russia with the non-socialist Russia of the past and future. In The Barber of Siberia, he looks back at pre-revolution Russia to find moral integrity and individual and collective identity. In Burnt by the Sun, he makes it possible for the viewer to accept the suppressed past, emphasizing how much humanity and love continued to exist even in the time of terror.

Neither Flannery nor Davies are sceptical about Mikhalhov’s vision of history. Presenting the Kotov family as helpless spectators of the events which destroy them, the play and the film ask how long it was possible to have confidence in the Stalinist system without being aware of the mechanisms of terror at work. Mikhalkov deals with moments of peace, love and happiness in times in which terror was part of normal life. Flannery reveals the terror inherent in an apparently peaceful society and in the democratic system.

In the play as in the film, Kotov is a perpetrator but also a victim in a political system relying on terror in which confession and not evidence becomes "the source of all justice."  This is one of the most important statements in the film, and the play draws parallels to the current political context of international terrorism and the state’s reaction in which political measures override the law. Presuming innocence is a legal principle in many countries, yet this principle is no longer sacrosanct.

With regard to Western societies, the play could be read as a reminder of the fragility of democracy, which is unable to suppress totalitarianism. In State of Exception, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, concerned with totalitarian tendencies in contemporary democracies, investigates how governments increase power structures in supposed times of crisis and individuals are stripped of their basic rights during a prolonged "state of exception". According to Agamben,

"... modern totalitarianism can be defined as the establishment, by means of the state of exception, of a legal civil war that allows for the physical elimination not only of political adversaries but of entire categories of citizens" (2).

Agamben is referring here especially to the military order issued on November 13th, 2001 by the U.S. President George W. Bush:

"What is new about President Bush’s order is that it radically erases any legal status of the individual, thus producing a legally unnameable and unclassifiable being. Not only do the Taliban captured in Afghanistan not enjoy the status of POW’s as defined by the Geneva Convention, they do not even have the status of people charged with a crime according to American laws." (3)

Deprived of their basic human rights, the prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay without trial were reduced to mere existence (Butler).

Flannery’s play allows other analogies with the Stalinist time, when walls had ears and people developed strategies of secrecy to survive. The voice from off-stage reveals the omnipresence of the State trying to control its citizens and is an effective reminder of the power of the media in our times, especially with regard to the United Kingdom, where electronic surveillance and the collection of personal data have become pervasive. Not unlike Mikhalkov, Flannery deals with images that provide masks for reality, revealing how freedom can no longer be taken for granted in western democracies. Both the filmmaker and the playwright debunk the lies behind the images of peace and harmony. In doing so, each points to his art form as a powerful means of manipulating the perception of history and social reality.

A variety of perceptions

Mikhalkov’s film provoked a vigorous debate in Russia.[14] Critics writing for popular reviews such as the Russian Premiere, Seance or Iskusstvo Kino (Film Art) acclaimed the film. Alexander Kulish praised Mikhalkov’s "instance on moral and human values" instead of an ideological judgement. Other critics such as Larisa Miller expressed similar views. The renowned theatre and art critic Boris Liubimov commented in his favourable article on the "positive" events and achievements of the year 1936 in literature and the arts. The left-wing critics, however, reacted in a more negative manner. Starting from a generally hostile attitude towards popular film, critics such as Igor Vinogradov and Vladimir Novikov rejected Burnt by the Sun not only because they despised it as a product of the mainstream, but also because of its commercial success outside Russia. Post-Soviet intellectuals such as Boris Kuzminsky criticized the film for "being a Russian stacking doll for export." He is not alone in his opinion that a Russian film which western audiences are able to understand cannot be a good film. Andrev Plakhov accuses Mikhalkov’s film of being a conventional work which "follows the tradition of the 'cinema of the Brezhnev era' with a mark of quality."

On stage Burnt by the Sun is among newer British theatre productions dealing overtly with politics and history. In the 1990s, less politically themed plays have been presented at the major London theatres. The events of 9/11 brought a change. Recent works such as David Hare’s Stuff Happens and Gethsemane, Joe Sutton’s Complicit or Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children — a Play for Gaza focus on democracy and totalitarianism, the freedom of the press, and distorted perceptions of history and society.

The success of Ariel Dorfman’s The Death and the Maiden is one example of the favourable reception of political drama in the British press. Originally produced at the Royal Court Upstairs, it won the Olivier Award for best play in 1992. At the occasion of its rerun at the King’s Head Theatre in 2004, Paul Taylor pointed to the ongoing relevance of subjects such as reconciliation, revenge and forgiveness the play is concerned with.[15]

Like Mikhalkov and Flannery, the Chilean playwright addresses a moral dilemma at a particular moment in history and within a particular political context. Dorfman’s play reveals the fragility of democratic systems and explores questions of innocence and guilt. In an interview published in The Guardian[16] , Dorfman recalls his return to Chile in 1990 where he discovered that tormentors and victims were living together in the same society. Not unlike the characters of Burnt by the Sun, his protagonists Paulina and Roberto are both victims and perpetrators. 

Alan Bennett’s highly acclaimed[17] The History Boys, premiered in 2004 at the Lyttelton Theatre and retaken in fall 2009, is another prominent example of successful British political theatre writing. Set in Thatcherite Britain, it approaches contrasting styles of teaching and fabricating history. Plays such as Stuff Happens (National Theatre, 2004) about the events that led up to the Iraq War in 2003, Gethsemane (National Theatre, 2008) about the corruption of Labour’s socialist ideals and Complicit (Old Vic, winter 2009) about McCarthy’s United States have received controversial reactions. Mainly the 10-minutes play Seven Jewish Children (Royal Court Theatre, Feburary 2009) aroused a hot debate. The writer Caryl Churchill is a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Written in response to the wave of Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza strip in winter 2008/2009, the short play starts with the Holocaust and ends with the military attack on Gaza. It embraces violence against Jews and violence distributed by Israelis. As Burnt by the Sun or The Death and the Maiden it confronts the difficulty to explain violence. Acclaimed by the critics of The Guardian and The Times, the play has been rejected as anti-Israeli by the Bord of Deputies of British Jews and as anti-Semitic by the Zionists Federation of Great Britain and Ireland.

Next to late Harold Pinter, the Czech-born Tom Stoppard remains a figurehead of a theatre concerned with questions of ideology and history, politics and society.  Rock’n Roll (Royal Court Theatre, 2006) spans 32 years: from the Prague Spring in 1968 to 1990. It is a play about resistance and perseverance of humanity in a dictatorial system. Rock’n roll music serves as a bridge between two cultures, British and Czechoslovakian, and two political systems. As do his plays Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth, Professor Foul and Every Good Boy Deserves a Favour, Rock’n Roll focuses on artistic dissent as a form of resistance. Set in Prague and in Cambridge, the play contrasts the attitudes of a young Czech student and rock music fan and a British professor who continues believing in the Soviet system. As the critic Neil Asherson put it, the play explores the nature of freedom, asking the crucial question whether or not freedom is the normal human condition.[18] Stoppard’s Every Good Boy Deserves a Favour focuses on the totalitarian apparatus. First performed in 1977 at the Royal Festival Hall, the play, acompanied by live orchestra (the music score was written by André Previn), was staged again at the National Theatre in spring 2009. It deals with the fate of dissidents imprisoned in a Soviet mental hospital in the 1970s. The links with Putin’s Russia are obvious.[19] The practices described in Stoppard’s play haven’t dissapeared with the Soviet Regime.[20]

These and other recent plays at major London theatres deal with questions which Burnt by the Sun raises explicitly or provokes implicitly. Flannery’s play was highly acclaimed by London’s theatre critics. Michael Coveney[21] and Michael Billington[22] appreciated the portrait of the family and human relationships but did not dwell on the historical, ideological or cultural context of the play and its relation to the film. These critics drew mainly on the narrative and the performances. Tim Walker[23], however, evoked the idea of the British surveillance society as a way to connect past and present, Russian history and British society. Lucy Powell[24] and Corinna Lotze[25] were more concerned with questions about the historical context. Lotze in particular criticized the fact that the play and its mise en scène reproduce clichés about the October Revolution and Russia. Significantly, none of the critics offered a comparison between the film and the play.

Both the film and the play deal with issues of power and manipulation, approaching them through the universal themes of love and friendship, commitment and betrayal. The play shows an even a greater shift from the collective to the individual, from the political to the private, revealed through the figure of the truck driver. In Mikhalkov’s film, he has lost his way and is driving around confused and disoriented, a symbol of a nation that has lost its sense of direction. Some particularly intense moments in the play involve the truck driver, who starts to cry because he is worried about being lost. In the play he is presented as a widower[26] suffering from loneliness and an old-fashioned gentleman who courts Mokhova. The truck driver in the play is less of a cipher and more a human being full of hope for the future. The coup de theatre of the revolving building accompanied by fading light and thunder symbolize a society in crisis and the feeling of impotence in the face of the state’s increasing power and influence in everyday life. It is, however, the driver’s brutal death which reveals the inhumanity of the political system and which creates one of the most emotional moments in this play about love and humanity.

In Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice[27], one of the characters, Taher, an immigrant from Palestine who acts in a play together with other asylum seekers wonders: "Is this a play about immigration or is it a play about love?" He finds the answer himself:

"Working on this play I have come to savour the music when the lovers meet. It is the music of hope, humanity. (…) Yes. Only love can free humanity from the shackles of history."

Bean’s play looks like a comment on Burnt by the Sun and its focus on individual destinies. Flannery’s writing and Davies’ mise en scène emphasize how emotions and themes of love and humanity convey political reflection, even though nostalgia weakens the political purpose. However, neither Mikhalkov nor Flannery give an answer to the question they raise, namely to what extent Kotov’s ideal was perverted from the very beginning. When did the dream turn into nightmare, or was the nightmare already part of the dream?

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