copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 52, summer 2010

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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] 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.

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. 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] 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.

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?


1. The British playwright and screenwriter Peter Flannery is mainly known for his play Our Friends in the North (1982), which he adapted for television in the mid-nineties. In this nine-part adaptation, broadcast by BBC 2 in 1996, he follows the lives of four friends from Newcastle from 1964 to 1995 against the backdrop of a changing society. He also wrote the scripts for Funny Bones (1995) and The One and Only (2002). The Devil’s Whore, on the English Civil War, was shown on Channel 4 in 2008. [return to text]

2. Academy Award for the Best Foreign Film in 1994.

As reported by Alexander Barmine, a Soviet official whose book One Who Survived was published by Putnam in New York in 1945. See for details on the Kirov assassination p. 247-252.

4. In the same trial, Trotsky was sentenced in absentia.

5. See Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purges of the Thirties. London: Macmillan, 1968.

6. Some of the minor events shown in the film are narrated in the play. This applies to the short sequence in the film when the truck driver explains that he has been turned back by the soldiers guarding the balloon.

7. "To ostatnia niedziela," written in 1935 by the Polish composer Jerzy Petersburski. The lyrics, by Zenon Friedwald, describe the last meeting of former lovers. A Russian version, "Weary Sun" (which is the correct translation of the title of Mikhalkov’s film) was written in 1937. The tango remained popular after the war and was used in other films such as Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours: White (France/Poland, 1994).

8. Mikhalkov’s An Unfinished Piece for a Mechanical Piano (URSS, 1977) is based on Chekhov’s work. Several themes from this earlier film, such as the theme of lost love which cannot be recaptured, reappear in Burnt by the Sun.

9. Another direct link to the Russian writer are the last words of Maroussia’s father, which are based on Chekhov’s father’s last word. Mitia recalls that all that remained after a long life was the vision of a train with geese. Cf. Beumers, p. 84.

10. As in Close to Eden (1992), Mikhalkov’s portrayal of the Russian peasant is much more positive than in some of his previous films. In his adaptation of Oblomov (1979) as well as in Dark Eyes (1987), they are represented as dumb and primitive, less than human.

11. The tango was chosen as background music by several young Polish officers before committing suicide.

12. Mikhalkov was President of the Russian Society of Cinematographists and had influential positions in Russian cultural policy. He has been a strong supporter of Vladimir Putin and is known for his nationalist and Slavophile views. 

13. The fact that in both the film and the play the actor playing Kotov has, like Stalin, a moustache contributes to the ambiguous portrayal of the dictator. The view of Stalin as the good father to the Russian people still lingers.

14. See Beumers for more details on the film’s critical reception in Russia. Beumers, op. cit., p. 115-130.

15. Review of the play in The Independent, August 3rd, 2004.

16. "A Vicious Circle," January 17, 2008.

17. For Michael Billington the play is one of the groundbreaking works in recent times (The Guardian, May 19, 2004). Paul Taylor (The Independent, May 19, 2004) points to the entertaining qualities of a play which avoids easy answers to the complex questions on education it asks.

18. The Observer (June 4, 2006).

19. Cf. Michael Coveney’s review of the play in The Independent (January 20, 2009).

20. Tom Stoppard in an interview published in The Times (January 12, 2008).

21. "Burnt by the Sun," The Independent (March 4, 2009).

22. "Burnt by the Sun," The Guardian (March 5, 2009).

23. "Carousel of Misery," The Sunday Telegraph (March 8, 2009): 28.

24. "Why the National Theatre is Filled with Communists," The Times (February 27, 2009).

25. "Russia in One Dimension"
 www.aworldtownin.net (March 6, 2009).

26. In the film the man is married and there is no love interest.

27. Performed in spring 2009 at the National Theatre.

Works cited

Agamben, Giorgio. State of Exception. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2005.

Beumers, Birgit. Burnt by the Sun. London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2000.

Butler, Judith. "Guantánamo Limbo." April 1, 2002.

Figes, Orlando. The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia. London: Penguin, 2007.

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