KinoKultura: Issue 28 (2010)

Speaking in Tongues: Poetic Language in Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun

By Mariya Y. Boston (U of California, Davis)

In the past several years Nikita Mikhalkov’s persona has become more popular and in a way more important than his actual work as a film director and actor. One of the most recent examples is the scandal surrounding the election of a chairman for the Union of Cinematographers, which was covered in the media in 2009.[1] The goal of this article, however, is not to follow Mikhalkov’s and the Union’s power struggle, but rather to come back to the discussion of his cinematographic work. Birgit Beumers explains “the relative lack of critical attention to the body of [Nikita Mikhalkov’s] work partly” by his immense popularity as he “belongs to the mainstream of Soviet and Russian cinema rather than auteur cinema” (2005: 1). In other words, his work is often perceived as a sort of cinematographic “pulp fiction” (see Beumers 200 and 2005). His films from the 1990s on, such as Barber of Siberia (Sibirskii tsiriul’nik, 1999), Burnt by the Sun (Utomlennye solntsem, 1994) or his most recent film 12 (2007)[2] were popular both among the general public and film critics, although for different reasons. These films are known (and often criticized) for their beautiful Russian landscapes, heavy moralistic content, and somewhat over the top symbolism (such as the fireball in Burnt by the Sun or the bird stuck in the gym in 12). In this article I would like to present a close reading, or even a “close viewing,” of several key episodes from Nikita Mikhalkov’s Oscar winning film Burnt by the Sun and discuss the role of language in the film viewed through a formalist perspective, and thus attempt to further scholarly discussion of his work. It seems especially appropriate to return to this film now, since work on Burnt by the Sun-2 is complete and the film is scheduled for release on the large screens in May 2010.[3]

The title of this essay, “speaking in tongues,” might suggest a Christian reading of the film, but that is not the intent. What is interesting for us is that glossolalia (from Greek glossa—“tongue, language” and lalein—“to talk”) is essentially exclusive; it is the language of the chosen ones. According to the Bible, ability to “speak in tongues” is a sign of a true believer as Christ proclaims, “These signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new languages.” (Mark 16:17). In the biblical sense these “new languages” are the languages of the ultimate truth. In the context of film, it is the unsaid and the “encoded” language which one uses to express one’s own subjectivity to speak the truth about oneself. Ultimately, speaking in tongues in the context of the film is speaking a language free from Soviet rhetoric. Admittedly, Russian language of the 1930s can not be completely free from Communist ideology, just like an individual can never be free from the state. However, I would like to concentrate on the idea that defamiliarized (ostranennyi) language, to use a formalist term, gives an individual such a possibility.

Additionally, if we consider Boris Eikhenbaum’s statement that “cinema is not simply a moving picture, but a special photographic language” (Bann & Bowlt 1973:123), then another layer appears, that of a visual language. Therefore this new language of glossolalia is the language of the visual in combination with the defamiliarized language (as in the fairy-tale scene, for example) and silence as such. Accordingly, I would like to argue that Burnt by the Sun seems to suggest that the true feelings, emotions, and psychological complexity of an individual can never be expressed through the regular “prosaic” language of Soviet Russia, but only through the “poetic.” This distinction between poetic and prosaic languages allows the distinction between the state, the system, and a single individual. Viktor Shklovsky defines prosaic language as the language of the everyday, the familiar: “When words are being used by our thought-processes in place of general concepts […] when they are used in everyday speech and are not completely enunciated or completely heard, then they have become familiar and their internal (image) and external (sound) forms have ceased to be sensed. We do not sense the familiar, we do not see, but recognize it” (Bann & Bowlt 1973: 41). Thus the prosaic will be associated with Soviet rhetoric. Language is perceived as a carrier of Soviet ideology, which does not have to be “completely enunciated or completely heard;” it is recognized as such and is always inherently present in the lives of Soviet citizens.

Poetic language, on the contrary, is the unfamiliar, where the words stand out. Shklovsky argues that when language becomes too familiar, an art work must bring back the sense of a word, hence his call for “the new forms of art,” which would “restore to man the sensation of the world” (Bann & Bowlt 1973: 46). Accordingly, the function of the “poetic” language is to bring out the word, make one see the word anew; by drawing our attention to form, poetic language renews our perception of the world as such. It is possible to argue that Mikhalkov in Burnt by the Sun uses poetic language on two different levels (linguistic and visual) to express the internal struggles of the characters. In the context of the film, to see the world through the poetic language means to identify true subjectivities of the characters, to understand their emotions, and most importantly to draw a border between the private and the public, the individual and the state.

Notably, borders between the private and the public in the film shift easily. The life of the “hero of the Revolution”, Colonel Kotov (Mikhalkov), just like Mitia’s (Oleg Menshikov) life, is inseparable from the Revolution itself and with that, the regime they work for. The Revolution and its destructive force touch every character in the film. The film’s plot is relatively simple: NKVD agent Mitia comes to take colonel Kotov away from the dacha of his wife’s family. As the story unfolds, the viewer finds out that Mitia was once in love with Kotov’s wife Marusia (Ingeborga Dapkunaite), but was forced to leave so Kotov could marry her. So on the one hand, it is a love story, a family drama, a melodrama[4] in which a lover from the past comes and disturbs a family’s idyllic present—a summer day at their dacha. On the other hand, in the light of the period chosen for the story’s background—the Stalinist repressions of the 1930s—Burnt by the Sun is often read as an attempt to look at Russia’s historical past: “The film captures the last moments before the show trials made such a firm belief as Kotov’s in Revolutionary ideals impossible” (Beumers 2005: 105).

To continue Beumers’s idea, the film plays on the conflict between Kotov’s idealistic beliefs and the dark reality of the state he lives in. For him, there is no separation between private and public. He is a hero in all spheres, as Inna Broude puts it, “He is great in every way: strong, charming, and swears wonderfully” (Broude 2001: 31). Both Broude and Beumers stress the idea that his heroic status does not change and does not need to change in the private sphere. He is admired by everyone, from the pioneers and the lost truck driver to his own daughter. For them (and for himself) he is a personification of the national values and ideals, an embodiment of masculinity, a perfect father-figure. However, once the regular course of his life is interrupted, once his heroism is put to the question by Mitia’s arrival, the portrayal of his subjectivity changes.

When human, non-heroic emotions kick in (jealousy, anxiety, fear, distrust), the prosaic language of the Soviet hero cannot convey them. That is why his jealousy is expressed not necessarily through spoken words but rather through visual language. A series of shots expose his jealousy and suggest his thought process as the camera focuses on a forgotten book and a ball on the beach, on Mitia’s pants and shirt drying outside, on Kotov’s back as he rushes from the river into the house. The suggestive squeaking of the bed upstairs reveals his suspicion only to prove him wrong, as he runs up to the door to see Liuba and Kirik putting air in a soccer ball. It takes Nadia to verbalize his suspicion, as she points out to him forgotten objects on the beach, Mitia’s drying clothes, etc. Linguistically, these emotions can only be conveyed through the uncorrupted language of a child, not of a war hero. When Kotov sees Marusia’s family dancing the cancan downstairs all his “heroic” demeanor is lost. He turns into a husband, not a perfect man, who can be suspicious and jealous, who gets offended because the dancers ignore him, and who does not speak French, “not yet,” as he points out to their maid Mokhova.

The French language here functions as a marker of social status: it signifies the Whites, the aristocracy, the “good old days” of receiving Shaliapin and Rakhmaninov. French points to a clear distinction between the “reds” (Kotov, who doesn’t speak French and dance the cancan) and the Whites (the dachniki and Mitia). Moreover, the separation is also between the state machine which the Revolutionary hero represents and Marusya’s family, the personal memories that they all—including Mitia—share. Tatiana Moskvina describes Kotov as a “Soviet ‘superstar,’ who is happy to play on the cult of his own personality. He is the master in another family’s house; and he has added his own pictures—showing himself together with Stalin—to the collection of old family photographs” (Moskvina 1999: 97).

Additionally, the fact that even their housemaid Mokhova speaks French seems to be a mockery of Kotov’s potency. The language makes this “heroic, nationally rooted, ultimately martyred man of the people” (Lovell 2002: 253) inferior to a maid and stresses the separation between him and his wife’s family even further. This separation is emphasized visually as Kotov watches them dance, standing in the doorway without entering the room, and in the next frame goes onto the veranda to start his lunch alone. French is one of the expressions of the “new language” of glossolalia, it is the language of the “chosen ones” because it points to a close connection between these people; it also allows Kotov to sees his family in a different light. In a way, French makes the “kamen’ kamennym” (“the stone stony”) to use Shklovsky’s famous dictum; here it makes the Whites even “whiter.”

bbtsThe very beginning of the film already emphasizes the role of language. It starts with silence as the film opens with an image of the red star on top of one of the Kremlin towers[5] in the center of the frame. The track-out away from the star opens to our eyes the view of Kremlin, and in the front of the frame, almost exactly in the center, we see a big red flag waving to the rising sun. In this somewhat grandiose presentation of the Soviet capital the viewer might not even notice people on the screen: a group of marching soldiers in the middle of the empty street, identified mainly by the sound of their boots as they hit the ground in unison. Significantly, it is one of the few things we hear in this opening sequence: the film greets us with the sound of the Kremlin clock on the Spassky Tower, marching solders, and the sound of the water sprayed from a hose as a man washes the bridge. In other words, this sequence presents us with silence interrupted by the “language of power:” people appearing on the screen are defined not as individuals, but as tools of a silent, omnipresent system. 

This omnipresence of the system is further emphasized when Mitia enters his apartment and asks his former tutor, Philippe, to turn on the radio. Significantly, opening the door Philippe starts speaking French. Similarly to the cancan scene discussed earlier, French is a marker of Mitia’s personal history, so here too he is individualized. From these first minutes of the film very specific conclusions about Mitia’s background can be drawn. Beumers compares Burnt by the Sun to a “Russian stacking doll” as the film “offers a multiplicity of layers for interpretation, and the more the patient viewer knows of the culture the more layers he/she will discover.” (Beumers 2005: 114). Thus, Mitia has a French tutor,whom Mitia’s father “hired in 1901” and “wanted [him] to speak only French” to Mitia; Mitia is therefore from an aristocratic family and most likely to be fluent in French. And if Mitia is still around in 1936, he must have joined the Red Army, the Bolsheviks, and now probably works for the state. One can tell his current status as a high-ranking official by the apartment building (the famous House on the Embankment built for the Party nomenklatura) across the bridge from the Kremlin.

The contrast between the official language of the state transmitted by the radio and Philippe’s French is striking. One could assume that Mitia completely rejected (or at least was expected to do so) his old “bourgeois” ways, which would include speaking French in the house.[6] So poor Philippe switches to Russian, and Mitia keeps correcting him. This phantasmagoric “tutoring” is not only about Mitia being irritated by the old man making mistakes, rather, it is about forcing Russian onto the household. Language used at home gives an individual a sense of self-identity; however, the Soviet regime allows only a Soviet identity. Self-identity is, in a way, impossible; it can only be associated with the system. Andrew Higson in his definition of a nation state writes, “Those who inhabit [a] nation with a strong sense of self-identity [are] encouraged to imagine themselves as members of a coherent, organic community” (Higson 2006: 16.) Mikhalkov presents a community, which lost its organic qualities, turning it into a quite horrifying mythical abstraction. The mysterious phone call, the silence of the phone to which Mitia says, “I agree,” adds to this picture of an unknown presence.

The film makes clear from the very beginning that there are two ways to come to terms with the omnipresence of the state: first, accept it and continue living with an idea that one is always watched, and always under control. The circularity of the film’s time and space—the film starts at 6 a.m. in Mitia’s apartment and ends next morning, 7 a.m. in the same place— “enhances the closed system of the film's narrative: there is no way out, either in time or space; the characters are entrapped” (Beumers 2005: 105). This idea will be especially explicit at the end of the film, when an air-balloon slowly lifts a huge picture of Stalin into the sky, as if watching over Soviet citizens. The second possibility of dealing with the “state” would be suicide as a proof of control over one’s own life and identity. About three minutes into the film, Mitia is playing Russian roulette. As he is pulling the bullets out of the cartridge, Philippe is reading a newspaper in the next room. The article is about “sudden fireballs” that cause “considerable damage to the agricultural health […]. These phenomena are apparently the result of the well-organized sabotage,” are Philippe’s last words before Mitia pulls the trigger.

What is significant in this episode is the psychological density achieved through language: Philippe’s struggles with the nomenklatura language are juxtaposed to Mitia’s corrections of Philippe’s Russian. Mitia recognizes all the words that Philippe mispronounces and corrects them. Interestingly enough, Shklovsky notes how a lot of our actions are based on this automatism: “If we examine the general laws of perception, we see that as it becomes habitual, it also becomes automatic. So eventually all of our skills and experiences function unconsciously—automatically. If someone were to compare the sensation of holding a pen in his hand or speaking a foreign tongue for the very first time with the sensation of performing the same operation for the ten thousandth time, then he would no doubt agree with us.”(Shklovsky 1929: 4-5). From the communication between Philippe and Mitia it is clear that these corrections are the norm, something that Mitia does quite often. However, in this episode Philippe’s mispronunciations and Mitia’s corrections allow us to see the absurd content of the article that talks about fireballs as the result of “well-organized” sabotage.

At the same time, these routine corrections, combined with film’s visual language, are much more meaningful than the article’s content. The “juxtaposition of perspectives,” to use Eikhenbaum’s term, intercutting between Philippe’s reading of the newspaper, Mitia’s hands as he pulls out the bullets and lines them up on the table, and the glass door which separates him and Philippe, forces the viewer to create an “internal speech” while interpreting the frames (Bann & Bowlt 1973:125). Speaking of silent film, Eikhenbaum emphasizes that “the meaning of each frame is conditioned in significant measure by its connections with the adjoining frames” (Bann & Bowlt 1973: 125). If we are to apply this idea to Burnt by the Sun, this particular montage of the POV shots reveals how oblivious Philippe is to Mitia’s internal struggle. The glass door between them could be read metaphorically as the separation between two different lives, the old and the new, aristocratic and Soviet, which are forced to coexist here but are never fully together. This scene suggests that the everyday Soviet language cannot express one’s psychological suffering and that it takes cinematographic language and the emotionally loaded defamiliarized language of Mitia’s automaton-like utterances to convey it.

By and large Burnt by the Sun gives the impression of Soviet rhetoric taking over the language of the everyday. Hence emotions can never be fully expressed through the familiar everyday language, so the visual comes to its aid. In the cancan scene Mitia’s hysterical playing of the can-can in a dressing gown and a horrendous gas mask emphasizes the absurdity and horror of the situation: a friend has come to destroy the family. Moreover, it is the horror that Mitia feels himself. The way the camera presents Mitia in this scene, playing the piano when everyone has already left the room, implies that there is something under that mask, something that he himself is too afraid to deal with. The only way for Mitia to get out of this sudden horror for his self would be to take off all his masks, but he merely puts on yet another one.

bbtsThe next mise-en-scène, with Marusia clutching his clothes in her hands and him undressed at the piano, plays on this sense of bravado that Mitia likes so much. However, at the same time, it points to the incredible intimacy between these two people. The camera here is almost spying on the pair, because during the whole sequence the camera keeps its distance and remains behind Marusya’s back. Looking over Marusya’s shoulder, we only see Mitia’s clothes on the chair, not his naked body, which brings up the sexual tension between the two as something very private. She comes from the dark front of the frame into the light—and stops in a doorway as if incapable of crossing this last line. Shocked by his playful nakedness and a matter-of-fact tone, she throws his clothes at him and runs away.

This step from gas mask with dressing gown to nudity is Mitia’s essence. While wearing the gas mask, he suddenly saw his “naked” self. But being physically naked is just another mask that hides his weakness and cowardice, perhaps, behind this shocking behavior. Generally speaking, he constantly balances personal and public appearances, his official NKVD persona and his “friend of the family” one. As Susan Larsen points out, Mitia is “always an actor: he arrives at Kotov’s dacha disguised as an old man, later dons a gas mask and bathrobe while playing a frantic cancan on the piano, then improvises a puppet show” (Larsen 2003: 496). One could argue, however, that only by being an actor, by disguising himself, can he gain his own “self;” this continuous masquerade could be read as an expression of his suffering, as a shield from the outside world, and with that as a way to separate his identity from the state.

In general, truth in the film is told either in a vulgar and extremely explicit way (by Kotov, for example, in his brief dialogue with Mitia), or a completely new language has to be created. When Mitia tells the truth in replying to Kirik’s questions about his job, Kirik does not believe him. So Mitia is forced to come up with a more plausible answer and says he plays in a small restaurant in Podolsk (a small town to the south of Moscow). Therefore, to tell his story, Mitia tells a “fairy-tale” to Nadia, which she cannot really understand, and which is not targeted at her. He speaks of his youth and his relationship to Marusia’s family, what happened between them, and why he left her. This is one of the most important sequences in the film not only because it clears the events and provides necessary background information for the characters, but also because on the ideological level, it proves the impossibility of human existence within the Soviet state.


All the events, places, and people in Mitia’s story refer to the actual characters and places in the film, but in order to conceal them he reverses the name of every character. So Mitia becomes Iatim, Marusia/Musia is Iasum etc. Significantly, he chooses not to mention Kotov’s name at all and calls him “the other one whose name I can’t remember,” while Nadia, sincerely believing that it is a fairy-tale, defines him as an “ogre” and a “bogeyman.” As the story is being told, the camera places the viewer alongside the unintentional audience of the fairy-tale— the rest of the family who is drinking tea on veranda. As Mitia carries Nadia over to his side, he sets up the opposition of “us” (Mitia and Nadia) and “them”-all the others. Nadia with her childish naïveté turns from the silent listener to the active participant of the story performed on the “stage”. However, she does not relate the story to people around her, as Beumers put it, “Nadia transposes herself into the fairy-tale world, but does not transpose fairy-tale into reality” (Beumers 2005: 107).

What is interesting about the fairy-tale is its play on the notion of the familiar: Nadia immediately recognizes and goes along with the conventional fairy-tale plot structure, while her family sees beyond it. When Mitia tells about prince Iatim’s return home, Nadia jumps in to say, “I know how it ends! […] They got married and…” However, the story is not over yet, the fairy-tale’s antagonist is still missing. Thus, when “one day, a very important and distinguished man sent for Iatim,” Nadia guesses it was the bogeyman Koschey to what Mitia, somewhat sarcastically replies, “No. He wasn’t quite that important.” During this brief interchange the camera’s attention focuses on Kotov to indicate who Koschey (the victimizer) is and suggesting that prince Iatim is a victim of Koschey’s evil plans.

In “Art as Device” Viktor Shklovsky repeats his idea from “Resurrection of a word”: “An object appears before us. We know it's there but we do not see it, and, for that reason, we can say nothing about it.”(1929: 6) This is exactly how Nadia understands this fairy-tale. She recognizes the conventional structure and is able to fill the gaps in the story’s development, to identify the good and the bad—the Prince and Koschey. She also knows that the antagonist would often send away the protagonist in order to get his bride/wife. So she actually narrates the story together with Mitia, using a familiar linguistic formula: “go to some place, I don’t know where, and do this there,” and Mitia continues, “I don’t know what.” Hence Nadia recognizes a familiar pattern of repetitions common to fairy-tales—characters, plot line, language—and does not see it anew.

However, the rest of the family sees beyond the fairy-tale princes and ogres and for them it is the fairy-tale that makes Mitia’s story stand out. Accordingly, the fairy-tale could be read as one of the examples of defamiliarization (ostranenie). Shklovsky’s discussion of Tolstoy could clarify the matter: “The device by which Tolstoy estranges his material may be boiled down to the following: he does not call a thing by its name, that is, he describes it as if it were perceived for the first time, while an incident is described as if it were happening for the first time. In addition, he foregoes the conventional names of the various parts of a thing replacing them instead with the names of corresponding parts in other things” (1929: 6).

Applying this definition to the film, we could say that Mikhalkov tells a story by borrowing formulae and terminology from a different sphere: folklore. Mitia’s fairy-tale follows almost all of the fairy-tale conventions except for the happy ending where an antagonist is punished and the protagonist wins his princess back.[7] It is the language here that makes the story stand out and also gives it a new perspective: Mitia’s perspective, the perspective of a victim. Thus objectivity of the “truth” told is out of question; it is truth seen through Mitia’s eyes, his vision of events. His understanding differs significantly from Kotov’s, as we find out later in the film. But most importantly, this usage of fairy-tale again supports the idea that regular “prosaic” language cannot be used to convey all the meaning.

Significantly, the protagonist/antagonist dichotomy of the fairy-tale switches in the film’s narrative. On the one hand, Kotov is a national hero, “an idealist who believes in the fundamental humanitarian goals of communism and acts out of allegiance to the cause,” thus falls victim to a regime. On the other hand, Mitia can be regarded as a “self-loathing, decadent son of a defeated class, motivated by the vengeful feelings,” (Lawton 2004: 76), “in a word, intelligentsia” (Broude 2001: 31). Thus, the roles can easily reverse: Kotov can be turned from a villain into a hero, while Mitia can turn from a victim into a victimizer (see Beumers 2005).

Nevertheless, the moment of truth comes out in the form of this pseudo-fairy-tale because “[t]here is no other way for him [Mitia] to return to the past than by creating a carnival atmosphere that allows him to behave like a child and play all sorts of—forbidden—games.” (Beumers 2005: 108). In a way, to gain his subjectivity he has to turn to the past, and only by performing can he look back into the past because that is his only way to separate himself from the state. Even though Mitia speaks French, plays the cancan and wonderfully gets along with Nadia, he is an outsider and, quite literally, he is the state’s tool of destruction.

On a more general level, then, this act of performance could be read as an allegory for the Soviet system in general, where the regime represented by posters and red stars substitutes people by dolls: the well-being of the state devours anything human and turns people into puppets. Mikhalkov presents here a vision of Soviet reality, which is made into a “fairy-story, a myth,” and is absolutely unadapted to the lives of actual people (Beumers 2005: 107). Only by pretending to be someone else, one can be “real;” only by playing can one tell the truth.

Therefore the film often “speaks” through images rather than words. For example, we cannot hear the conversation between Kotov and Mitia when the latter notifies the colonel of the true reason for his visit. Instead, we are separated from the two by a closed door and watch them with Marusia’s eyes. This POV shot suggests multiple realities that exist within the film narrative: the reality of Marusia’s life--a quiet life of a national hero’s wife who is suddenly forced to deal with the appearance of her first love; there is the reality of Nadia’s (so far) happy childhood, with pioneers, swimming in the river, and playing soccer on Sundays; the reality of Marusia’s family—living mostly in memories, in a Chekhovian world; the reality of the dacha as such—which is a big part of the life of the Soviet intelligentsia, but is also so divorced from the Soviet horrors of the 1930s. The dacha allows Kotov to be “the solicitous parent, the loving husband, the war hero [who] leads a fully bourgeois lifestyle, substituting, of course, football for cricket.” (Moskvina 1999: 96). All of these realities attempt to separate this family from the Soviet 1930s, they create “petty comfortable illusions” (Moskvina 1999: 107) that the system eventually destroys. 

The last episode of the film stresses the destructive nature of this system. Again we hear the sound of the Kremlin chimes, the ringing telephone and a radio enthusiastically pronouncing, “Good morning, comrades.” Again Mikhalkov’s stresses the radio’s inadequacy: Mitia meets his morning in a bathtub with his wrists cut. A close-up on Mitia’s face, cutting to the red star he can see from his open window, to the fireball, brings us back to the inevitability and impossibility of life within the system. Similarly to the fairy-tale episode where the visual language spoke of the emotional: close-up on Kotov’s face, on Marusia’s trembling hands, and the “performers,” appears to be more eloquent than any words precisely because of its psychological richness. Here, Mitia’s whistling of the romance “The Weary Sun” also points to the failure of language. There is really nothing else he can say, explain or do, for that matter. No fairy-tale is good enough to convey his emotion, or lack of such; all the masks are taken off and here he is, in all his weakness.

The film does not lay the blame on an individual, but on the system as such. The film’s end titles read: “Dedicated to everyone who was burnt by the sun of Revolution,” thus making the film explicitly political.[8] In the end, it is not a family who suffers, but the nation as a whole, perhaps precisely because of the inability to accept life in this “mythically” constructed country. In the last scene, the fireball becomes a symbolic representation of the Soviet state itself, which “destroys people in an indiscriminate manner” (Beumers 2005: 108). “The personal [in this film] does not prevail and moves to the background. And Stalin’s epoch moves to the foreground. A black and scary epoch, practically useless for life, fantastic and insane” (Broude 2001: 42). Even more so, because power never really has a human face, a picture at its best—but never a person, as we realize that neither of the main characters are in power (even if they might think so for a moment), they are all nothing more than cogs in the big state machinery represented by a red star and a banner.

One could argue that Mikhalkov’s film stresses the idea that only by “speaking in tongues,” creating a language of the “chosen ones,” can the individual separate himself from the state and gain his own identity (even though only momentarily), often through rediscovery of the past. At the same time, language in this film is what makes the work “poetic.” In no way do I want to suggest Mikhalkov’s closeness to futurists or modernists in general; instead I have tried to point out how ostranenie becomes a critical device in the film as it draws our attention to the particular historical period, to the particular family (even though fictional, but somehow very familiar) through language.

However, unlike formalist poetics, language in Burnt by the Sun is exclusive. Similarly to glossolalia it targets those who can “decode” the language. In addition, Mikhalkov stresses not so much the form of the spoken word, but its hidden meaning. Boris Eikhenbaum writes that in film “[w]e see things anew, we ‘play’ with them. Used as a means of ‘expressivity’, photography turns into the ‘language’ of mimicry, gesture, angles, perspectives, and so forth.” (Bann & Bowlt 1973: 124). It is the visual language here that assigns meanings to silences, to the unsaid, thus stressing the inadequacy of the spoken language of the everyday. The Soviet machine never lets one be completely free, and it is only through silence that self-expression is possible. However, by accepting silence and a defamiliarized, re-formed language as a mode of expression, the individual immediately submits to the power of the state. And the only way out of this power struggle, the only way to truly separate one’s identity from the state’s would be to lose that identity altogether.

Mariya Y. Boston
University of California, Davis


1] After Marlen Khutsiev’s election as chairman of the Union at a congress in December 2008, Nikita Mikhalkov put all his effort into establishing that the election was illegitimate. At the extraordinary congress in March 2009, Mikhalkov was reelected as the Union’s chairman and remains in that position.

2] Interestingly enough, Mikhalkov’s film 12 (2007) was nominated for the American Academy Award, but did not win and had mixed reviews in Russia.

3] Burnt by The Sun-2 consists of two parts, Predstoianie (Impending) and Tsitadel’ (Citadel). The first part will be released on 9 May 2010, the 65th anniversary of Victory Day. The second part is scheduled to come out in fall 2010.

4] Larsen (2003) argues for the genre definition of Burnt by the Sun as melodrama.

5] The stars are important because in 1935 they replaced the eagles, the symbol of the Imperial Russia. In 1937 the stainless steel stars covered with copper plating were exchanged for ruby ones, which became a key symbol of the Soviet Union.

6] While this was almost the norm for the 19th century Russian nobility, in 1936 this could be regarded as a reason to be accused of espionage.

7] In a way, Mitia’s story follows Propp’s systematization of functions of characters.

8] At the 4th Congress of the Filmmakers' Union (May 29-30, 1998) Nikita Mikhalkov makes an interesting statement: “Have any of our fellow country-man have been in the USA? I imagine some 5 per cent; may be even less, 3 per cent. Yet do many people know about the USA? Almost everybody does. But they know the America that cinema has shown them. America has forced the world to perceive it through cinema” (Mikhalkov, 50). Arguably, Mikhalkov is trying to create cinema that would reestablish Russia’s national identity and national values, but as he sees them. Whether or not Russians agree or approve of such an image is a different question altogether.

Works Cited

Bann, Stephen and Bowlt, J.E. (eds.) (1973), Russian formalism. New York: Barnes and Noble.

Beumers, Birgit (2000), Burnt by the Sun, Kinofile 3, London: I.B Tauris.
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Mariya Y. Boston © 2010

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Updated: 23 Mar 10