Nikita Mikhalkov as Kotov

Ciarán Hinds as Kotov at the National Theatre, London in 2009. © Catherine Ashmore

Admiring the aeroplanes, Kotov expresses his belief in Bolshevism's achievements.

The dacha: the film’s central space.

The streets of Moscow filmed in twilight contrast with…

…the pastoral setting at the countryside in which the action takes place.

The play: the two rivals with Maroussia. The woman, the object of desire, is placed between them. © Catherine Ashmore

The play: the couple in love, Kotov and Maroussia (photo from the rehearsals).

In the play, Kotov spends less time with his daughter. However, there are some moments of tenderness between them which make the male character more likeable (photo from the rehearsals). © Catherine Ashmore

Burnt by the Sun:
from screen to stage

by Andrea Grunert

In Spring 2009, Peter Flannery’s[1] [open endnotes in new window] adaptation of Nikita Mikhalkov’s Academy Award winning[2] film Burnt by the Sun (Utomlyonnye solntsem, Russia/France, 1994), written by Mikhalkov and Rustam Ibragimbekov, was directed by Howard Davies at the Lyttelton, one of the three theatres that make up the Royal National Theatre in London. The first question that springs to mind is this: why stage in London this Russian-French cinematic co-production from the early nineties set in Stalin’s Russia? Rewriting movies for the theatre seems fashionable. Two other film adaptations — On the Waterfront and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert — were also running in West End Theatres in the UK capital. But does this provide a satisfactory answer to our question? Focusing on mise-en-scène devices, this article will explore how the film and the play deal with the topics of totalitarianism, individual choice, and responsibility in the framework of both works’ political and cultural contexts. Moreover, I aim to reveal how the play transports to the stage the dichotomy between private and political life that the film relies on to support its ideological discourse and how it makes this choice relevant in Great Britain in 2009.

Love and politics in times of terror

Burnt by the Sun is set in 1936 in Stalinist Russia, one year before the Great Purge, the most intense phase of political repression and persecution, reached its peak. The story deals with the delusion and disillusionment of a hero of the Revolution and concentrates on one summer day in which the life of the mighty Red Army commander Kotov is destroyed. In the film he is played by Mikhalkov himself and on the London stage by Ciarán Hinds. Kotov is a fictitious character with no direct model in history but he is reminiscent of Sergei Kirov, the commander of the Leningrad Party, and they have the same first name.

Flannery’s play follows the film closely, borrowing dialogue and many details and embracing its great variety of shades, poetical realism and sense of absurdity. In both works Kotov embodies the new political order, a man committed to the ideals of communism who trusts in its achievements. His belief in progress and a better future for all citizens as guaranteed by Bolshevism is clearly expressed when he admires the aeroplanes flying over the dacha in the countryside. In the film the planes appear on screen. In the play it is only the noise of their engines that gives evidence of their presence, and Kotov exclaims repeatedly: "They are so beautiful!" The dacha in which Kotov spends the summer with his wife Maroussia, their six-year-old daughter Nadia (the child in the play is a little older) and Maroussia’s family and friends provides the central space in the film. Dominating the scenery, the family home is recreated at the centre of the stage in London. Located in a forest, which in the Lyttelton is evoked by two rows of trees on either side of the stage, the old-fashioned wooden building represents an idyllic place disconnected from reality, a reality imbued by uncertainty, violence and political murder.

The film starts and ends with sequences in Moscow. The first shots are those of the vast squares, empty streets and the monumental architecture of the capital city filmed at dawn. These views of streets in twilight create a stark contrast with the warm colours and sunny weather in the countryside. The first sequence introduces Mitia to the viewer. He is the other and younger male protagonist in the film (and play) and, as we find out later, Maroussia’s former lover. Kotov recruited him for the NKVD, the secret police, and sent him to France as a spy. In the movie’s first sequence, Mitia receives a phone call urging him to leave. In fact, his mission is to arrest Kotov and take the older man to Moscow in the evening.

The motif of the duel

The husband and the former lover are exchanging glances and pulling faces:
comic expressions of rivalry before it turns into tragedy

Mitia’s sudden and unexpected arrival at the dacha creates a surprise and immediate tension, revealing the nature of the relationship between the older and the younger man, Maroussia’s husband and her former lover, which is based on matters of power and rivalry. In both the film and the play, the men’s rivalry is presented as a duel suggested by visual means that display the different devices of the two media. In the film, the duel is evoked by gazes, for example, in a series of shots/reverse shots in the sequence at the lake where the family and Mitia are spending the afternoon. Exchanging glances and pulling faces, the two men express their mutual disdain. At one point, Mitia stares at a broken bottle close to Kotov’s bare feet. A malicious glee appears on the young man’s face. It is, however, not his rival who will step on the broken glass but Mitia himself. On stage, the idea of a duel is intensified by the mise en scène bringing the two male leads face to face.

Mitia stares at ... ... a broken glass close to his rival’s bare feet.
Not Kotov but Mitia himself will step ... ... on the glass. Once again, Kotov is the lucky man.

These very telling moments function as metaphors that emphasize the human relationship and culminate in a competition in dancing when Mitia performs an U.S. tap dance and Kotov replies by performing a Russian step dance. In the film, this scene takes place on the staircase of the dacha with Mitia on the landing while Kotov is standing at the head of the stairs. At the National, the dancing scene creates a particularly emotional moment, not only because the performances take place at the front of the stage but mainly because of Ciarán Hinds’ very provocative body language. As a child and adolescent Hinds was a member of Patricia Mulholland’s famous Irish Ballet School in Belfast. He projects his body aggressively towards Mitia and Maroussia, clapping his hands and stamping his feet. Maroussia, the object of the two men’s desire, stands between them, which points once again to the symbolic use made of the space-character relationship by the mise en scène and the way the audience’s attention is directed by the actor’s position on stage.

In the film, Mitia performs his dance for Nadia. In the play it is Maroussia who asks him to show her how to dance. Admiring her former lover’s dancing skills, she challenges her husband, who she thinks cannot compete with Mitia. Kotov’s performance earns him his wife’s admiration. Kotov is a big-hearted man who loves his young wife passionately and who is a caring father. Part of the emotional strength of the film derives from the relationship between Kotov and Nadia, played by Nadezhda, Mikhalkov’s daughter in real life. The interplay between him and the little girl imbues the whole film with a feeling of tenderness. Their complicity creates a strong illusion of reality and, in doing so, reveals the whole fascination of their performances. In the play and its mise en scène, the child is less present. There are, however, some very touching moments showing father and daughter talking to and caressing each other. Both the film and the play show the family reunited, suggesting a last moment of happiness and hope. But whereas at the beginning of Mikhalkov’s film the family is displayed prominently by the camera as they are walking home through the fields, in the play, the three characters leave the stage at the side, not isolated by a camera but part of the whole set with actors performing. Requiring the viewer’s full attention and imagination, the theatrical experience, unlike viewing the edited fragments that movies offer, makes the image of the happy family more difficult to grasp.

The dance as a duel: Mitia performing an American tap dance… …whilst Kotov replies by executing a traditional Russian step dance.

Burnt by the Sun presents the famous war hero Colonel Kotov in private life. An early sequence of both the film and the play reveals him as a public figure of great power. He helps the peasants who are afraid of the approaching tanks that are about to destroy their fields. The two soldiers he addresses do not recognize him as a famous man in civilian clothes. He has to show them his profile as seen on coins. Later, neither of the NKVD agents has ever met him. Not unlike Stalin, whom he resembles as he has a moustache, Kotov is a man the ordinary Soviet citizen knows only from a distance. He is an idol and a father figure whose presence makes the soldiers become nervous. One of them is so confused that he answers "Micha" (the name of the commanding officer with whom Kotov speaks on the phone) instead of "Kolya" when Kotov asks him his name (in the play he replies "Kotov"). Kotov affects people as Stalin did: they are blinded and intimidated. Merely his name is enough to give rise to admiration and fear. For Kotov, however, Stalin is a surrogate father. The Party is his family and his mother country. It is more important than his personal life and those he loves. Kotov is a mighty man and a famous general, demonstrated by the arrival of the pioneer regiment bearing his name and carrying his portrait on their standards and their uniforms who come to his summer retreat to praise him. Mikhalkov/Hinds listens in straight military pose. Kotov’s hand guides Nadia’s when she salutes, another detail the play adopts from the film. 

However, the public image of the powerful Bolshevik does not fit his image in private life. Kotov thinks of Mitia as a sexual rival and a traitor. Maroussia and Mitia share the same bourgeois background and interests. Having spent part of their childhood and youth together, they also share memories to which Kotov has no access. Connecting the private and the political, Kotov’s doubts expressed to Maroussia and Mitia echo Stalin’s paranoia. He is, however, unable to imagine that the minor NKVD agent Mitia, one of his products, has now been turned into a weapon against him. Both the film and the play deal with the weakness of the famous hero in his private life, preparing us for his political loss of power, which is fully revealed at the moment of his arrest.

Part of the film’s emotional strength derives from the tender relationship between Kotov and his little daughter, played by Mikhalkov’s own daughter. A last moment of happiness and hope: the Kotov family reunited in the idyllic landscape.

Like the rivalry between him and Mitia, spatial devices visualize the general’s position in the family, this time in terms of exclusion. His position as an outsider is most obvious in the film when everybody joins in the cancan but Kotov retires to the dining room, where he starts eating his soup. "I wanted to call them but I do not speak French," he comments to the astonished housemaid Mokhova. In the play the difference between Kotov, the man from a proletarian background, and Maroussia’s bourgeois family is even stronger than in the film, where he joins the others more often, laughing and chatting with them. On the stage, the entrance to the dacha creates a visual barrier between Kotov and the family, who as part of their bourgeois lifestyle continually refer to masterpieces of European culture. Through the relation between the human figure and the theatrical space, the mise en scène builds him up as the outsider who is unable to share their taste and their memories. Kotov sits or stands apart from the others and is the silent observer in the background, listening to Mitia’s fairy tale or watching Mitia and Maroussia, both younger than him, reunited in a moment of joy. In a highly symbolic way he is shown behind the hedge as if behind bars, while Mitia and Maroussia are on the other side of it.

The powerful war hero who repeatedly insists that he knows Stalin’s private telephone number is played by Mikhalkov and Hinds with a slight vulgarity, a rude voice, and the manners and impressive body language of a man at ease with himself. Both performances, even if different in style, reveal the character’s authority, his aplomb as well as his vulnerability and jealousy, his fear of loss, and his despair when he discovers that Stalin has betrayed him. Kotov is both an energetic man full of life and a ghostly figure, a man who does not know that he is condemned. While objectively he is still the powerful military man, the loving husband and the father who enjoys being with his family, in reality he is already a phantom. The moment at which he shows his profile as it appears on the coins suggests that he is only an image. Images, like fairy tales, distort reality and transform history into myth. However, images can collapse.

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