The Absurd in Action: Being Burnt by the Sun

by Binoy Kampmark Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: 04.08.2010

In his second notebook, Albert Camus makes reference to the nature of love as a palliative to the absurd. In Burnt by The Sun 2: Exodus, Nikita Mikhalkov continues his epic story he began in Burnt by the Sun (1994) featuring the travails of General Kotov, whom he plays. It is a depiction of the absurd in action, beginning in 1941, five years after the events depicted in the first film. We find that his sentence is altered, and in the wisdom of a murderous, Kafka-styled bureaucracy, he has ceased to be a political criminal. An attack on the camp by the invading German forces enables him to escape.

The status of the former General as a convict though, remains unshaken. He is sent to fight in a penal battalion, a group of men he refuses to leave, despite being presented with various offers. Permanent grief keeps Kotov company. He still believes that his wife Maroussia (Viktoriya Tolstogonava) and daughter Nadia (Nadezhda Mikhalkova) have perished in the Soviet Union's labour camps. Unbeknownst to him, the two women are still alive. (Nadia, in fact, becomes a nurse in the first few years of the war). Even in such times of crisis, a concerned Generalissimo Stalin will still have time to ponder Kotov's actual fate, and send the bitter, tormented KGB Major Mitya Arsentyev (Oleg Menshikov) in pursuit. The ledger of death must, after all, be balanced, both for personal reasons, and reasons of state.

The astonishing imagery is frequent. A striking offering is made after the penultimate battle scene - watches on dead soldiers as they keep ticking amongst the smouldering dead and the mangled bodies. The stage direction is, in short, astonishing, even if the film suffers from awkward pacing. Various allusions in the film have also irritated reviewers. Mark Adams of Screen Daily (May 22) found too many sources of inspiration from Saving Private Ryan, Dr. Zhivago and Band of Brothers, a film made 'with an awareness of an international market place' hungry for war films. That said, Adams is quibbling. The Russian taste for the fringes of lunacy and strong living is never far away.

Even in war, we are reminded in this film, the bureaucrat holds sway. The obsession with order, however murderous or hypocritical, must be maintained. The mechanism is hypnotic and automatic. Kotov shall be sought by the secret police; money keepers shall seek documentation and signatures as a German Stuka plane pulverises a column of civilians. War is no excuse for bad account keeping in the name of the Communist party.

It is also true that even in war the trivial moments of domesticity prevail. In a conflict of extermination, where slaughter is indiscriminate, there is time to worry about whether a chandelier is neatly packaged and won't be damaged on route; that the documents of the Communist Party are kept safely on a boat, even at the expense of not saving a girl floating on a mine at sea. Most significantly, a totalitarian state shall still have time to identify its fictional traitors and non-existent conspiracies.

This sweeping account of absurdity is not for all. Some left the cinema early, feeling squeamish at the scenes of devastation. One is reminded of a criticism made of the dystopian novels of the 1940s - surely it could not have been that apocalyptic? But that it was, and more. One can also take issue with the cultural imprints of the Russian Ministry of Culture, and the heavy emphasis on religion, but the film remains an exceptional analysis of war as one of humanity's more manic institutions. The trilogy promises to be completed next year.

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