Only Let There Be No War: ‘Films of Nikita Mikhalkov: Volume 1’

The release of this box set is a welcome development. Nikita Mikhalkov was a legend in Russia long before Burnt By The Sun won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1994.

Having recently viewed each title a couple of times (and having watched Burnt By The Sun for at least the tenth time) this reviewer can recommend each without reservation. To be certain, there is a element of enrichment at play: it’s often worthwhile to learn something about a time—and culture—still mostly unknown to western eyes and sensibilities. That’s what textbooks are for, right? The fact of the matter is that each of these films has a great deal to offer, aesthetically as well as historically. Rest assured, none of these movies will feel like a homework assignment. They are filled with humor, horror and the struggle for fulfillment (or, short of that, the struggle for peace); the same things that have shaped and influenced our history as humans regardless of language or locale.

These films do feel dated, but that’s inevitable and by no means a negative. In addition to being decades old, they were created in a different Russia and, in many regards, an entirely different world than exists now. Then there is the fact that three of the films are set earlier in the 20th (and one is a period piece from the 19th) Century. The question, then, is not so much how well they have aged so much as how convincing they are on their own terms. For several reasons, they hold up well and remain compelling achievements, which is what we should expect from a director of Mikhalkov’s stature.

The next, more crucial question—with all aesthetic considerations aside—is whether they are entertaining enough to entice a contemporary, non-Russian speaking audience. The verdict here is that they are, although this endorsement is offered with the winking caveat that they are only as appealing as any Russian film with sub-titles can be.

Are you still with me? If so, and you are prepared to dive in, you might be best advised to work backward in chronological order of release. Newcomers should certainly get acquainted with Mikhalkov via Burnt By The Sun (1994), followed by Without Witness (1983) and Oblomov (1980). The next two, Five Evenings (1979) and A Slave Of Love (1976) are perhaps the most challenging but, in their way, the most rewarding.

A Slave Of Love has previously been unavailable on DVD, so cinephiles who remember Jack Nicholson praising it in the ‘70s (as the back cover boasts), and people who have heard or read about this minor classic finally have an opportunity to see for themselves if it warrants the hype. The story is set in 1917 during the Bolshevik Revolution, and concerns silent film siren Olga (Yelena Solovey) who is working with a not-particularly inspired crew on a new project. Despite the lethargy, which is exacerbated by the summer heat, there is a palpable sense of urgency. The police keep dropping by and, although they are on location off in the country, a collective apprehension intensifies as rumors and rumblings from the city accumulate.

Eventually, Olga does her best acting away from the bright lights once she finds herself falling for the attractive and worldly cameraman Pototsky (Rodion Nakhapetov). The more she feigns indifference, the more obvious it is that she is smitten. At one point in the midst of a car ride that leaves the vehicle covered with country dirt (the presence of dust and grime sticks to every scene, working well to convey authenticity and serve as a metaphor for what is happening on and off the set), she laments the lack of meaning she finds in her work, despite her celebrity. She longs for a cause; to be something or, short of that, “useful—like a tree or the earth” (Ah, now that is Russian!). She gets her chance when it is revealed that her lover is a dissident, and wants her to help the cause. This sets up an epiphany wherein she is able to transcend her solipsism, but only by paying a price she could not have imagined.

Five Evenings was shot in less than a month, during a seasonal lull while Mikhalkov was filming the expensive and elaborate production Oblomov. The plot seems straightforward enough, but the languid pace and lack of traditional conflict (much less “action”) is deceptive: this film is a quiet powerhouse, and the careful build of emotional intensity reaches a memorable and deeply affecting conclusion. The setting is Moscow near the end of the ’50s, and involves a fortuitous reunion between Tama (Lyudmila Gurchenko) and Alexander (Stanislav Lyubshin), who were once lovers before the war interrupted their lives 17 years earlier.

Shrewdly shot in black and white entirely inside Tama’s communal apartment, it is a dark film, literally. The interiors of the building are ill-lit and the empty spaces and shadows become characters, albeit in a way that never seems contrived. One feels the vibe of post-war Russian life, with its slowly eroding faith of God, country and self. As Tama and Alexander speak without complaint about their jobs and prospects, it is increasingly clear they are hoping to convince themselves as much as each other. It is also apparent that a great deal of attraction still lingers, while the sense of lost time and missed opportunity is obvious in their clipped exchanges and wary eyes. These are people who can barely allow themselves to dream, so the potential vulnerability risked by admitting they are lonely, scared and quite possibly still in love is unthinkable.

Eventually, inevitably, the truth (truths) can no longer be avoided or denied, and Alexander—after explaining the price he paid for refusing to immerse himself in the corrupted cesspool of the Soviet “system”—articulates the simple truth regarding the soul he has salvaged. “A man should remain true to himself,” he says softly, the hard years hanging around his neck like a noose. “It is a very advantageous position.” Considering all that he has seen and experienced, the simple integrity of this sentiment is a revelation: astute American viewers will be reminded why so many people still give up a great deal to come to this country.

The final scene of Five Evenings does not offer a resolution so much as a celebration of human resolve. In the last moments, once the couple has laid their feelings—and to a certain extent, their lives— on the line, the screen shifts from black-and-white to color (a tactic Francis Ford Copolla may have borrowed a few years later for Rumble Fish). It is an effulgent finale and a brilliant symbolic stratagem for a scene suffused with such unadulterated emotion. Once the credits roll it is difficult not to feel that this cast and crew have rendered what usually passes for drama in Hollywood seem facile and inauthentic.

The Haunting of an Entire Country

Oblomov is, aside from Burnt By The Sun, the film Mikhalkov is best known for outside his own country. Based on the novel by Ivan Goncharov, the eponymous protagonist is a classic sort of Russian anti-hero. Oblomov (played by an ideally cast Oleg Tabakov, whose pudding-face and pork chop physique could not possibly be more suited to the character) is rather like Melville’s Bartleby, only with means. Like Melville’s morose scrivener, Oblomov would prefer not to…do much of anything. He suffers from the very Romantic and very Russian literary affliction of ennui.

Once his legendary inertia is adequately established (augmented by narrated flashbacks of a pampered youth), we meet his lifelong friend Stoltz, the sophisticated and ambitious businessman who knows culture, eats carefully and generally tends to his physical and mental well-being—the anti-Oblomov, if you will. At Stoltz’s urging, his friend reluctantly agrees to spend a summer in the country where he meets the young and gorgeous Olga (Elena Solovey again). He slowly and predictably (but convincingly) falls in love with her, and the resolution of this infatuation will have permanent ramifications. Oblomov is an old-fashioned epic: long, deliberate, full of careful tracking shots (indoor and especially outside), wonderful score, solid acting and able to conjure up another time and place that, once viewed, will be difficult to forget.

Without Witness is probably the most straightforward, if least satisfying of the films. Even more claustrophobic than Five Evenings, all the action occurs during the course of one evening in a small Moscow apartment. The tone is disarmingly jovial when an ebullient, and inebriated, ex-husband (Mikhail Ulyanov)—who has since remarried—drops in on his still-single ex-wife (Irina Kupchenko). They do not seem especially estranged, and she does not seem unduly upset—or surprised—by his impromptu appearance. One quickly suspects his roguish goodwill and her stoic grace are masks, and one is correct. As the evening winds down, they each unburden themselves of secrets, resentments and a nasty surprise or two. Nothing that unfolds is particularly surprising (or frankly memorable) but the acting is fine and it works well enough as the obvious Bergman tribute it is attempting to be.

Finally, the one most western audiences have seen, or at least heard of, Burnt By The Sun. This is perhaps the only film from the last 20 years where I agree with virtually every critique (of which there are many, aside from the contrarian cranks who feel obliged to find fault with any movie fortunate enough to be lavished with awards), yet still consider it a near-masterpiece. Is it, at times, heavy-handed? Da. Can it fairly be accused of occasional preciousness? Da. Sentimental? Da. Still, and I measure my words carefully here, so was Tolstoy. Am I comparing this film to Tolstoy? Sort of. It is undoubtedly the most accurate, or at least successful, depiction of what we might call “Tolstoyan” (Memento, incidentally, is for my money the most “Dostoyevskian”).

This invocation is not offered lightly: the (very impressive) number of characters, the scope of its political, social and romantic entanglements, the sense of history anticipating the future even as the future seems to mockingly distort memory and deed, the violence and tenderness—occasionally contained in the same gesture; all of these are indelible elements of great Russian literature. If nothing else, Mikhalkov should be celebrated for the audacity to throw his cap in the big arena and go for broke.

The acting is top notch all around, including Mikhalkov who stars as the war hero and Stalin confidante Colonel Kotov. Special mention must be made of the performance Oleg Menshikov turns in as the enigmatic Mitia, the prodigal son who abruptly returns home with a secret that will shatter everyone he knows. Not many actors are able to transform convincingly from lovable to despicable to ultimately sympathetic (or, Tragic in the literary sense of the word), but Menshikov delivers one of the best, if unheralded performances in any movie from recent memory.

Among Burnt By The Sun’s many triumphs is the way it confounds almost every expectation it spends the first part of the film carefully building: the Kotov family’s bliss seems over-the-top, and the viewer eventually realizes this is strictly intentional, not merely as a plot device to set up the house of cards before it crumbles, but to suggest how illusory most of that bliss actually was (as in: ignorance is). The story also explores the tension inherent in one person’s contentment (particularly if that person is powerful) and how it can often be at the expense of someone else’s (particularly if that person is powerless). In a classic scene Mitia relates his decade in the service of the state that he had no choice but to sacrifice and tells the story as a thinly-veiled fairy tale. We see, as he speaks and acknowledgment slowly registers on the listener’s faces, that the Kotov’s contentment is not only quite complicated, but more than a little revolting.

Like most masterful movies, Burnt By The Sun can be appreciated for its succession of unforgettable scenes: Kotov explaining war and peace to his young daughter by admiring her soft and unscarred feet; Mitia correcting his servant’s pronunciation while carefully loading his pistol; the peasant driving in circles all day, looking for a town that never existed; Mitia playing the piano while wearing a gas mask—and the moment he locks eyes with Kotov across the room: a short and subtle exchange that shifts the entire momentum of the movie; Mitia standing fully clothed in the creek, reciting (in broken English) from Hamlet…these are all astonishing gifts that can be savored again and again. At the beginning of the movie a song is performed in a public square while Kotov and his wife dance in the snow; at the end the song is whistled by Mitia as he sinks into a warm bathtub: in a little over two hours we’ve seen the story of these lives played out, encapsulating the joy, hope, dismay and dread we know haunted an entire country.

RATING 9 / 10