When Burnt by the Sun was released back in 1994 it took the world by storm, winning both the Cannes Grand Prix and an Oscar. A large part of its appeal lies in the fact that it was the product of the newly founded Russian Federation, which was finally looking back on its traumatic Soviet past without fear of repercussion from the regime. In a sense, it was like a child looking at the world around it, slowly comprehending its immenseness and brutality. Thus, it makes sense that one of the standout aspects of the film is the character of Nadya, played by the director and lead actor’s own daughter. If it’s not Stalin, or the exoticism of 30’s Soviet Union, then it is certainly the precocious and avuncular child that made this film so appealing to the audiences.
Nadya is simultaneously a seemingly understated and pivotal character in this melodrama, serving both as a figure of pathos and as vehicle for dramatic irony. One of the most commented upon aspects of the film is the tender and brilliant depiction of a father-daughter relationship. This relationship not only adds to the tragedy of the narrative, but essentially humanises the character of Colonel Kotov. Without his daughter, Kotov would have seemed a brutish and indoctrinated tyrant, deserving no sympathy or compassion from the audience, with his eventual demise being a cause for celebration. However, this is not what Burnt by the Sun is about. Its aim is not to comment on ethics or morals of the Soviet 30s, but to show their nebulousness. The characters are not necessarily good or bad, moral or immoral, but people in an absurd and dangerous world who are torn between some of the darkest human impulses such as a revenge and authoritarianism, and the purest expressions of love and hope as can be seen in the interactions between Kotov and Nadya.
From the very beginning, Burnt by the Sun does not hide its tragic conclusion. These are Stalin’s 30s after all, and the people’s place in the sun is about to get very hot indeed. For Nadya, however, this is a summer of her childhood, where she can be blissfully oblivious to the world and protected by her family. Her knowledge of the Soviet regime is limited to the glory of her war-hero father and the excitement of Stalin’s youth program; essentially, these are the boundaries of her world. Thus, her point of view is completely innocent while simultaneously permeable, and by assuming that same point of view, we as an audience are invited to explore this world with her.
One of the themes of Burnt by the Sun is the deadly games that people are forced to play in order to survive in an uncertain and brutal world. This dark carnivalesque is juxtaposed with Nadya’s childish playfulness, full of naivety and good will. Like all children, Nadya is curious and credulous, which results in the creation of a meta-narrative while being softened by her perspective. The games begin when inadvertently Nadya lets the disguised Mitya into the house. Although there is no need for a disguise, this ploy highlights Mitya’s duplicity as well as his alliance with Nadya who becomes his unknowing co-conspirator and the recipient of all of his confessions, thus assuming her role as a vehicle for dramatic irony. It is through his vaguely disguised “story telling” that we gain insight into his tragedy and the reason for his hatred of Kotov. It is also through his shared secret with Nadya that we know that a car is about to come for him and inevitably, her father. Devastatingly, this leads us both to share Nadya’s innocent point of view and to be outside of it, passively observing the unravelling destruction.
As the game of dramatic irony continues, it gains its devastating momentum. Although Mihalkov diffuses it with a playfully spiteful dance off between Mitya and Kotov, along with a “un-bourgeois” game of football, it is impossible to ignore Kotov’s approaching demise. The most heart-breaking scene of the film depicts Nadya trying to hurry up her father so that she can drive the car which will drive her father away to his death. The dramatic irony is increased by her attempting to play a “game” that Mitya has just taught her – closing her ears and trying not to hear – the “game” initially devised by Mitya to prevent her from overhearing his confession to Kotov that he is about to be arrested. In this scene, however, the “game” figures as an emphasis of her naivety and ignorance of the future, while Kotov’s participation and eventual victory doubles as an allusion to the Soviet people’s refusal to hear and acknowledge the brutality of the regime.
This scene also brings to the forefront the disparity between the innocence of child’s play and the psychological games of adults. Throughout the film, adults are also seen to be playing games. Pointedly the film is set on a day of a celebration, when everyone seems to be carried away by the festive spirit, despite not actually caring about or liking its origin. The Soviet regime itself is presented as a sort of ludicrously grandiose game; the soldiers don’t know what they are doing, the civil defence league is rehearsing – or playing at – a gas attack, and the inhabitants of the village seem to be blissfully ignoring that its name has been abbreviated to SHAM. Most importantly – as Mitya stresses – everyone is pretending to inhabit an old way of life despite its evident decay and impossibility under the current regime when everything can be gone “in one click”. Even Kotov, who sneers at his in-laws’ pretences and assumed innocence, inevitably pretends to be calm and in charge as he is driven away to his doom, until he is violently forced to face the facts.
The absurdity of these pretences and Nadya’s innocent naivety stress the tragedy of this world. Through Nadya’s conversations with her father and his promises that the Soviet Union wants to build a better world, we witness the tragedy of ideological regimes and especially how they affect and prey on children. Nadya has grown up in this atmosphere of organisation and prosperity and thus identifies it with the current regime. For her, life outside of it is non-existent, merely a fairy-tale told by Mitya. This stasis will eventually be ruined by her father’s arrest and her mother’s imprisonment, a poignant reminder that the main victims of regimes such as these are children who are led to believe a political fairy tale without understanding its origin or mechanics.
In order for the film to fully display its poignancy, we as an audience ought to enter a sort of suspension of disbelief and view the world presented to us through a child’s eye. It is only through assuming her innocent gaze – and leaving behind our own prejudices and assumptions – that are able to inhabit this world permeated by horror disguised as a game. Burnt by the Sun does not ask us to pick sides between Mitya and Kotov, but to examine the atmosphere which shaped their actions and decisions, for it is precisely this atmosphere of oppressive and hateful heat that children like Nadya will inherit. As she runs through the wheat field and sings along to the melancholy leitmotif we are told of her parents’ approaching deaths, which will subsequently dispel her innocence. Curiously, we are told that she will become a music teacher, which leads us to wonder if on this fateful day Mitya simultaneously took away her father and left her a passion for music. Regardless, it is indisputable that for Nadya this burning summer day will be the last day of childish innocence.