Burnt By The Sun (1994) – “у каждого есть выбор…”

There are certain movies that leave us completely confused and make us  think about its plot for a long time, sometimes even for days. I adore such movies – when nothing is for sure, when everyone has own opinion after having watched it which leads to fascinating discussions. One of them is Nikita Michalkov’s “Burn By the Sun” from 1994 which got Oscar for the best foreign movie at that time.

So what’s the story? Everything happens one sunny day in 1936 somewhere outside Moscow where a happy family spends time together having fun and relaxing. The main character is Colonel Kotov, a hero of the Bolshevik Revolution, and a good friend of Stalin’s. He believes in communism, he devoted his entire life to fight for its ideals and he loves his country. We see him being a good father and husband and we unintentionally start to like him. Everything changes when an unexpected guest appears in the house – Mitya, the first love of Kotov’s wife who lived with the family for many years and who was very attached to them. I’d say that first hour diverts our attention from the real meaning of the plot, it makes us think that here it is another drama about love, we expect Mitya to seduce his ex lover and Kotov to be jealous. We couldn’t be more wrong. Mitya is in fact NKVD agent and came to arrest Kotov – the period of Stalin’s purges had just begun. “During lunch, Mitya tells Nadia (Kotov’s daughter) afairy tale which the adults in the house and the audience know is the true story of how he had first come to that house as a student artist and fallen in love with Marioussia (Kotov’s wife), and how Kotov, then amember of the NKVD, had sent him awayand forced him to become a spy. It seems this story will cost Kotov hisyoung wife’s love. But Kotov tells Maroussia his own version of a fairy tale about how people like Mitya had achoice.”

Did he really have a choice? We could claim that if everything in life was just black/white, but it isn’t. Let’s take a deeper look: a young boy full of ideals fights against Bolshevicks during the civil war, when the Reds win and come to power definitely he has to run away abroad to save his life, otherwise he would have been shot as all “traitors” of the regime at that time. He lives in France but he misses the house he grew up in so he decides to come back, not knowing that there’s no such thing as “coming back” possible anymore. They let him in the country but it has its price. He visits the beloved house and falls in love with Maroussia who is not a little child anymore – the most beautiful period of their lives begins. But soon it has to come to an end – Mitya is called by NKVD and forced to co-operate and work for them abroad as a spy. Kotov later claimed that he had a choice but it’s unlikely that they would have left him alive if he had refused. Mitya was young and naive, he tought that if he cooperates with the regime once they would let him come back and lead a happy life with his love. In fact he never stopped because there was no turning back.

The movie ends with Kotov being arrested but till the very end he doesn’t believe it is all for real, after all he is Stalin’s friend! He is sure it’s all one big misunderstanding and plans to call Stalin and solve this problem. Obviously there was no misunderstanding at all, Stalin sent to death hundreds of thousands people devoted to him and the state having no mercy.

What’s brilliant about the movie is the possibility to understand the story on your own way. There’s no good and bad character, there’s no such obvious divisions we are so used to. You are forced to make your own choice and opinion about each of them, but even that is not easy. Kotov is a good funny man who loves his country and believes in it but at the same time we know he worked for NKVD so we can assume he had sent to death thousands of people. Mitya is a young man with no future, working for the State he hates, who lost everything – his fatherland, his love, his family and ideals, but in the meantime he betrayed 8 White officers whose side he fought on and gave them away to NKVD just to be able to come back home, thinking only of himself. He also seems to be very pleased seeing the life of his beloved family falling apart. He despises Soviet Union but at the same time he is very meticulous and ruthless as an agent. They both have very complicated characters and we don’t know what’s exactly on their mind, what’s real and what’s an illusion. They have both tragic lives, they’re both burnt by the Sun, the Sun – meaning Stalin who was the centre of the Universe and with one signature could decide about life and death of millions of people. He is the one who has the power over them, he controls their lives and they cannot do that themselves. They’re burnt, stifled by the epoque they found themselves in. And there’s no final answer who was right or better. That’s why this movie is a terryfying masterpiece that doesn’t make you indifferent.