Issue 34 (2011)

Nikita Mikhalkov: Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel (Utomlennye solntsem 2: Tsitadel’, 2011)

reviewed by Elena Razlogova © 2011

citadelIn the opening of Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel, the camera glides from the mosquito’s point of view, from the microcosm of plants and insects to trenches full of men—Russian soldiers. By chance, the mosquito saves a soldier’s life. Toward the end of the film, when the protagonist, Sergei Kotov, and a band of unarmed civilian draft dodgers storm the eponymous Citadel, an insect saves the day again: a spider comes into focus through a sniper rifle lens and distracts a German soldier, starting a chain of events that leads to a fatal explosion. Such deus ex machina denouements drive Citadel’s narrative. What initially seems like a series of jumbled, unconnected scenes all conspire to fulfill Kotov’s quest to reunite with his daughter, now a nurse somewhere on the front lines, and his need to prevail against his enemies. Since Citadel’s celebrated and reviled director Nikita Mikhalkov is also playing Kotov, any evaluation of the film can’t help but become embroiled with Mikhalkov’s own public battles with his colleagues, audiences, and critics.

citadelThe original Burnt by the Sun cogently depicted Soviet happiness destroyed. When Mitia Arsent’ev (Oleg Men’shikov) arrested KomDiv (Division Commander) Sergei Kotov (Nikita Mikhalkov) and destroyed his sunny, rural, domestic life, we, the audience, realized that Kotov’s happiness with his wife and daughter had been illusory: it had rested on the moral compromises of the recent bloody revolutionary war and on willful blindness to ongoing arrests and torture of the Stalinist 1930s. Burnt by the Sun earned the Grand Prix at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Burnt by the Sun 2, set during the Great Patriotic War, destroys the finality of that original tale: it resurrects Kotov and Mitia, compresses time—Kotov’s daughter Nadia (Nadezhda Mikhalkova) grows up way too fast—and invents new personalities and lives for the main characters. While watching the film, one cannot help but think that this narrative violence has only one purpose: to ensure Kotov’s revenge on Mitia, Stalin, and Soviet society at large.

citadelKotov’s personality overwhelms everything and everyone in the sequel. Burnt by the Sun 2: Exodus (Predstoianie, 2010) had depicted Kotov’s escape from the Gulag camp and his floundering in the chaos of the first few months of the war. Everything that could possibly go wrong did. Citadel, instead, is a fairytale, where everything turns out well—even blanket bombing strike misses the one truck where a woman (Anna Mikhalkova) is giving birth to a child. In Citadel, Kotov demonstrates both virtue and resolve. He is close to the Russian people—he chats with ordinary soldiers, becomes the life and soul of the party at a crippled veteran’s wedding, and inspires civilians armed with wooden sticks to storm an impregnable fortress. He is sensitive—he weeps when he fears death and regrets killing an Orthodox priest during his revolutionary days. Yet he is also compassionate—he refuses to execute Mitia when the latter throws himself at his mercy. By the time Kotov explodes on a mine yet lives, we, the audience, are no longer surprised at his superhuman abilities.

citadelKotov’s ex-wife, Marusia, seems to enter the film solely to shine further light on Kotov’s saintly character. Of all the characters, she undergoes the most jarring transformation between the original film and the two-part sequel. From a fragile, helpless, heartbroken creature on the brink of suicide (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) she turns into a sturdy, practical, argumentative shrew (Viktoriia Tolstoganova). In Citadel, Kotov finds Marusia on the dacha where they used to live together, but now every trace of him and Nadia is hidden from view. Marusia begs him to let her live out her petit bourgeois life away from the front lines, with a piano, an alcoholic parasite draft dodger husband Kirik (Vladimir Il’in), an unwanted child, and meek yet pernicious old women relatives. He lets her go, of course, as a true hero should.

citadelNor should we be surprised at the lack of historical accuracy in a film where spiders win battles and father and daughter ride on a tank on a road to Berlin after being blown up to pieces in a previous scene. Burnt by the Sun 2, “A Great Film about a Great War” (its tag line), includes grandiose battle scenes and operatic emotions, but also intimate moments and broad humor. When Kotov searches for his shell-shocked daughter, he follows Soviet classics like The Cranes are Flying (Letiat zhuravli, dir. M. Kalatozov, 1957); when he leads people in battle he recalls Hollywood war blockbusters like Saving Private Ryan (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1998). But with its many miraculous and ridiculous elements Burnt by the Sun 2 recalls Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009) most of all. Critics have cited veterans’ groups’ complaints about historical errors. Yet today Mikhalkov’s frivolity with history is welcome, insofar as it counters the tight control that the Russian state has asserted over the memory of the Great Patriotic War, through official commemorations and laws that make critical histories of the war a crime.

One cannot evaluate Burnt by the Sun 2 and ignore the political role of its director, who enjoys Vladimir Putin’s favor and controls several key institutions in the Russian film industry, including the original Filmmakers’ Union, the Moscow International Film Festival, and the Golden Eagle Academy’s Awards competition and Oscars nominating committee. About a year ago, a group of Filmmakers’ Union members tried and failed to depose Mikhalkov from his position as the head of the Union. The editor of a venerable journal, Iskusstvo Kino, supported the rebels; Mikhalkov expelled the journal from its offices, showing less grace in dealing with dissenting filmmakers than his alter ego Kotov did dealing with Mitia and Marusia. In the end, the dissenters created an alternative Filmmakers’ Union. More recently, Mikhalkov nominated Citadel to represent the Russian Federation in the Oscars competition. The majority of the ten-member committee complied, choosing Citadel over Andrei Zviagintsev’s critically acclaimed Elena (Special Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard at Cannes IFF) and Aleksandr Sokurov’s Faust (Golden Lion at Venice IFF). In protest, the committee’s chairman, director Vladimir Men’shov, refused to sign the letter of nomination.

nikitaIt is because of Mikhalkov’s relentless will to power that Burnt by the Sun 2 lends itself so easily to ridicule. Journalist Andrei Temnov entitled his review of Part One “Burnt by Mikhalkov,” and writer Dmitrii Bykov borrowed Academician Viktor Vinogradov’s critique of Joseph Stalin’s work Marxism and Problems of Linguistics: in Exodus, Bykov wrote, “everything that’s new is not correct, and everything that is correct is not new.” When an online contest asked for submissions of revised film posters for Part 2, one contestant depicted Mikhalkov as a vampire, alluding to astronomical state-funded budget for Exodus (40 million) and Citadel (35 million). Another labeled the ruins of the Citadel with "Filmmakers' Union", alluding to the schism in the Russian film community. At this point, the film’s bad reception has more to do with Mikhakov’s unwillingness to share control over institutions and funds than his talent as a filmmaker.

Audiences shunned Burnt by the Sun 2 as a failed epic blockbuster, while critics declared it heavy-handed and derivative. Veterans saw a pseudo-historical fraud; the intelligentsia, a monument to inequities and corruption in Putin’s Russia. Yet, in the past, all these charges had been leveled at films later declared great works of art. Orson Wells’s Citizen Kane (1941) lost $150,000 in its initial run, and not just because William Randolph Hearst tried to suppress it (Gillet 2008: 55). D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), a pseudo-historical fraud and a monument to white supremacy, inspired a surge in Ku Klux Klan membership and in racial violence (Simcovitch). When the silent classic The Wind came out in 1928, most critics agreed with the New York Times reviewer, who observed, “Victor Sjöström hammers home his points until one longs for just a suggestion of subtlety” (Hall). When the Soviet Union nominated Vladimir Men’shov’s own Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears (Moskva slezam ne verit) for an Oscar in 1981 (it won), his colleagues jeered at the idea that the Academy might choose a melodrama that anyone could make in one’s sleep (Men’shov). The uproar each film caused matters not just because each later ascended to the film canon, but because each marked a key historical and stylistic juncture.  For all its flaws, Burnt by the Sun 2, too, has become a cinematic event—a trace of the political and cultural conflicts in Russia today.

Elena Razlogova
Concordia University

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Works Cited

Gillet, Philip, Movie Greats (London: Berg, 2008).

Simcovitch, Maxim, The Impact of Griffith’s Birth of a Nation on the Modern Ku Klux Klan,” Journal of Popular Film 1.1 (1972): 45-54.

Hall, Mordaunt, “The Wind,” The New York Times, 5 November 1928.

Men’shov, Vladimir, “Etot ‘Oskar’ nichego mne ne dal, a lish’ problem probavil,” Konkurent 23 Sept. 2009.


Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel, Russia 2011
Color, 158 minutes, Dolby Digital
Director Nikita Mikhalkov
Script Nikita Mikhalkov, Aleksandr Novototskii-Vlasov, Vladimir Moiseenko, Gleb Panfilov
Design Vladimir Aronin
Camera Vlad Opeliants
Music Eduard Artem’ev
Cast: Nikita Mikhalkov, Nadezhda Mikhalkova, Oleg Men’shikov, Viktoria Tolstoganova, Sergei Makovetskii, Vladimir Il’in, Andrei Merzlikin, Maksim Sukhanov, Artur Smolianinov, Inna Churikova
Producers Nikita Mikhalkov, Leonid Vereshchagin
Production Studio TriTe
Distribution Central Partnership

Nikita Mikhalkov: Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel (Utomlennye solntsem 2: Tsitadel’, 2011)

reviewed by Elena Razlogova © 2011

Updated: 03 Oct 11