Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Looking Back in Weariness at Soviet Horrors

The Soviet past is the subject of two new Russian films exploring the poisonous effects of dictatorship on human relationships.

Director-actor Nikita Mikhalkov's "Wearied by the Sun" might better be titled "Wearied by Politics."

Like most of his works, this startlingly original film looks at life through the prism of family relationships. The drama focuses on an upper-class family living in almost pastoral leisure in a sun-dappled countryside in the summer of 1936.

The film shows a day in the life of a revolutionary and Civil War hero, Sergei Kotov, whom Mikhalkov plays with deliberate grandeur and understatement in the opening sequences at his dacha with his wife (Ingeborga Dapkounaite), little daughter and other relatives. Here, under these perpetual blue skies, it is unimaginable to think that the horrors of Stalin's purges and the misery of forced labor camps could disturb the family's rhythm of long conversations, leisurely walks and happy feasts.

But clouds gather over these loving and tender scenes when Dmitry, an old family friend who now works for Stalin's political police, stops by uninvited at Kotov's dacha.

The naive belief of Commissar Kotov makes him a victim of the Stalinist regime, with the cynical opportunist Dmitry (a former tsarist army officer) as his executioner. The clash between them is heightened by their love for the same woman, whom Dmitry had abandoned in the past and Kotov married.

Despite its exceptional quality for the post-Soviet film industry, aided by cameraman Vilen Kalyuta's sweeping shots of Russian forests and fields, "Wearied by the Sun" is flawed: It strains awfully hard to make its point.

In an effort to make the contrast between loving relationships and a malignant political system, Mikhalkov presents a family that is just too ideal. Is it really possible that such an idyllic atmosphere and such gentle relationships could exist in an elitist Soviet family in 1936? And how nice a guy could the commissar really be if he had reached such a pinnacle? The film points to the commissar's friendship with Stalin -- and that almost certainly means that the commissar was also a stool pigeon or otherwise morally compromised.

Even if a bit heavy-handed, however, Mikhalkov's latest film does make its point that the basic human need for loving relationships transcends whatever political designs mankind can devise.

Avant-garde film director Sergei Livnev makes a similar point in the bizarre "Hammer and Sickle."

"Hammer and Sickle" presents us with the ultimate preposterous medical-social experiment: a sex-change operation conducted according to Stalin's instruction that "if the Motherland needs soldiers, we'll give it soldiers. If it needs mothers, we'll get mothers."

The obedient eggheads easily transform an unsuspecting woman, a character named Yevdokia Kuznetsova, into a handsome young sample of the New Soviet Man: Yevdokim Kuznetsov. The Father of the People (Stalin, played by Vladimir Steklov) takes special care of his new creature, granting him the stellar Soviet destiny of star worker, heroic builder of the Moscow metro, people's deputy, happy husband of a beautiful front-rank worker.

But the well-planned experiment in socialist paradise goes awry when our New Man falls in love, breaks with the omnipresent Stalin's control, and tries to strangle his benefactor.

Production and design are above par in this film, made on a modest budget. The film accurately recreates the aura of the '30s with the living ornaments "woven" by athletes during Red Square parades and cheerful newsreels on the achievements of collective farm workers, thus dissolving the boundaries of fiction and documentary.

Also entering the picture is the construction of the famous sculpture-colossus "The Worker and the Woman Collective Farm Worker," which in reality stands in front of VDNKh. In the film the protagonist and his wife serve as the models.

"Wearied by the Sun" and "Hammer and Sickle" are vivid, incisive contemplations of the past that give present-day viewers much to ponder.

The first Moscow premiere of "Wearied by the Sun" will take place at 6 P.M. Sunday, in the main hall of the Cinema Center on Krasnaya Presnya. Tel. 205-7306. It will also be shown there Nov. 6 to 16. In addition, a festive ceremony and screening of the film will take place Nov. 2 in the Rossiya Concert Hall at the Rossiya Hotel. Tel. 298-5550, 298-1124.

"Hammer and Sickle" will be shown in the Cinema Center on Krasnaya Presnya in early November, date to be announced.