Thursday, December 16, 2010

Stalinism in Film

Burnt by the Sun, a Russian film set in the late 1920s, follows the lives of a communist war hero, famous for his exploits against the Whites during the Civil War, and his small circle of friends. This lively group of friends share a warm and cozy home, and enjoy one another's company. The colonel's wife and small girl seem especially contented. Even so, this happy home is threatened by vague but unrelenting external pressures.

Everyday Stalinism is a creeping, insidious force. In its most brutal form, the state sends tanks to eradicate the fields of local peasants, presumably in order to enforce collectivization. Relying on his seemingly unassailable reputation as an ally of communist, the colonel narrowly averts this disaster. But the state is closing in on his country idyll. Communist propaganda is a constant presence even in this remote area. It arrives by newspaper harangues against Stalin's enemies, by radio propaganda, by children's parades and communist celebrations, by civilian defense force maneuvers. The result is a low level but unceasing state of anxiety and a fear of strangers.

One such stranger turns out to be a long lost lover of the colonel's wife. This man courts his former lover. Soon, however, the lover's past and present are revealed. He and the colonel are rivals in two levels. Aside from their quarrel over a woman, the colonel knows this stranger to have been a spy during the Civil War, a traitor to the Whites with whom he sympathized. The stranger has been corrupted by the Revolution, turned into an agent of the secret police, a man who destroys others in order to survive.

The stranger's animosity toward his rival in affairs of the heart will be compounded by Stalin's animosity for rivals for the affection of the Russian people. The colonel's bravery cannot save him; indeed, that bravery puts him at risk. The stranger soon calls in the Chekist thugs who will destroy the colonel. Not even a signed photo of the colonel with Stalin can save him. As we know, military leaders were more vulnerable than anybody in Stalin's police state. Their charisma and potential authority was a constant threat to the paranoid sovereign's power. In a clumsy visual metaphor, a balloon carries a portrait of Stalin over the beaten colonel as he is taken away to be tortured and executed for mysterious crimes. Stalin, the sun, seems omnipotent, both life-giving and soul-destroying.

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