Yesterday, I sat down to watch nearly three hours of this historic fiction that took place between the 1900’s and 1920. From the onset, there is a clear indication of something bad that is going to happen though we have no idea what it will be until they walk onto the barge. Even then, we don’t really know what is going to happen but we can suspect. You are not watching this movie thinking there will be a happy ending as it is somewhat akin to those who watched the Titanic movie. In 1920, it was the end of the Tsar. The entire family had been assassinated; including little children. The communists were most certainly not very humane in their actions. In the aftermath of annihilating the family, they set about to destroy the lives of their soldiers as well. They did not want one single person left behind from the old regime.
To prepare you for this ending, you, the audience, are being simmered in a pot on the stove as the spices are added to give it just the right touch. Nikita Mikhalkov, who is both the director and one of the writer’s of this screenplay brings romance into this mix. In fact, this is why I watched the film. I was lured into watching this on Kanopy by the photo of the Russian soldier and a woman and saw something in the abstract about a romantic film. Since it was from Russia, I knew it wasn’t going to be a perfect story and I needed something devastating that would resonate with how I felt inside.
What is fascinating, and I didn’t realize this until the end, the main characters do not have a name. I thought I had heard their names in the film but when I looked them up to write about this, I realized there weren’t any. The actors, Martinsh Kalita, is “The Lieutenant” or poruchik which is a Russian word for low level officer. Viktoriya Solovoya, is “a stranger” or the woman that captures the Lieutenant’s heart. He is probably on a furlough when he meets the strange woman on the boat or ferry that they are on. She is hanging out with a family that she might be travelling with. Back on the shore, maybe even where he is headed to, he is engaged to Tatyana, who is a beautiful singer. A song that she sings, which sits in his memory, is Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix which means, my heart opens itself to your voice, and comes from the beautiful operetta, Samson and Delilah, composed by Camille Saint-Saëns.
The Bible story of Samson and Delilah is one that is about the betrayal of a woman toward her lover. This beautiful stranger does not betray our Lieutenant, nor does his fiancé, as far as we know. However, a young boy, who would become the protagonist throughout the film and one we do not realize until the very last few minutes, he is the one who would betray the Lieutenant. Thus, this song becomes an appropriate choice nonetheless.
There are two stories that occur here. One, is a bunch of officers in a prisoner of war camp. The second is the romantic interlude between the two nameless characters. I feel that the best way to explain the Lieutenant is to think of Yuri, in Dr. Zhivago. A romantic man who has a heart of gold. Who loves little children, beautiful women and might even be a poet. Our Lieutenant is too focused on a woman in this film but he is filled with so much passion, you could imagine him pouring out his heart in prose. Like Yuri, there are two great loves in this Lieutenant’s heart. He also loses the lover because she leaves him at the inn. He is so relaxed after such a breathtaking lovemaking session that he sleeps through his ability to re-board the boat they were on. She is a lot like Lara, in Dr. Zhivago, as she keeps her wits about her. It is interesting that the Europeans love to create very strong female characters and very silly effeminate men. On the battlefield, these same men are strong and dependable but off the field, they are soft and caring – chasing after a skirt like a little boy who won’t let go of his mother’s apron strings.
The young boy has two names, one that is his childhood nickname and then the adult name he uses as a communist. This boy reminds me of Rolf, the lover of Liesl in The Sound of Music. The two of them represent youth who are brainwashed by two different regimes. Rolf, becomes a Nazi and betrays the Von Trapps and Georgiy, the communist who betrays the Lieutenant. Both learn to put their boyhoods aside to serve the future, the idealism of that time. While we do not see the conclusions for both of these boys, in either story, we do know that, historically, both will ultimately lose out in the end. In the film however, both represent an intense moment which has you on the edge of your seat.
The symbol of the pocket watch is an intriguing object that returns in our storyline. Like the balalaika (a Russian instrument), played by Yuri and his daughter Tanya, in Dr. Zhivago. The stringed instrument in Dr. Zhivago, also holds a role during the film and returns at the end to assure us or, in Sunstroke remind us who we are talking about. The pocket watch at the end of Sunstroke, tells us this romantic time period was just a moment in history that will never return. The balalaika assures us that she is his daughter.
The looks on people’s faces in this film are very significant when they show us so much about what they are thinking without needing to say it out loud. I love this type of storytelling because, a good actor can create this atmosphere that moves the story in a different direction. It stirs up feelings inside of you: concerns, fear, anticipation for what is about to come. The innkeeper’s wife who is aware that the strange female lover is not married when she looks over at her hands and later gives her husband the look “I told you so.” The female communist leader who has a smirk on her face as she tells Georgiy that it is okay for the men to sing their religious tribute to Russia as they board the barge. The man on the barge who is sitting on the stairs and gives away everything in his luggage to the men he is with. The way he gets up from the stairs and opens his luggage to the men and even lets go of the leash to his dog; that he has held onto throughout the film. All of this is very telling of their conclusion. Even the Lieutenant’s romantic and naïve gestures with his fellow officer (from the stairs), shows us that he still doesn’t get it, in those very last moments of the film. His way of shouting out to Georgiy as he finally realizes from the pocket watch, who this young man was, it is heartbreaking.
As I am very aware of Russian history, at least what I have learned from stories and films, from the onset of this film I kept wondering how the officers would ultimately be dealt with. As it is nearly three hours, it is excruciating to wonder; moment by moment. The film starts with them holding their rifles above their heads. They are pulled into the camp in such a way that you are not sure, at first, where they are going. Even with the romantic storyline that our Lieutenant is daydreaming about along the way. It has now been a decade and a half, we don’t even know if he ever got married to the singer, we only know that this love story has kept him strong throughout the war. Is he hoping to be reunited with her some day? Maybe he just lives his life in love with this moment. This one night of passion in an inn; somewhere in Russia. It didn’t even occur to me that he wouldn’t die while we were learning of this story because throughout, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I was just fascinated with the direction it was going in and thinking it was long and wondering when. In fact, it did feel very long and it took too much time to explain things and divulge the conclusion. However, it is like most European storylines, where if you trust the director, you know he is going to lead you somewhere good. It wasn’t until today that I began to piece it all together in my head to write this post that I realized the masterpiece that I had viewed.
Sunstroke will never get the attention of Dr. Zhivago and The Sound of Music, though it has every bit of good intentions to impress you just the same. This film deserves a lot more merit. It was selected for the 88th Academy Awards (2016), in the Best Foreign Film category but, was not nominated. When I look at the list of those films that were nominated, I realize I am behind on my foreign films as I had not seen any of them. I no longer watch the Oscars though either. That pocket watch has sunk with the transition of our country, just like that period of Russian history that will never return to us, to them, ever again. History is so very romantic though we do not realize it until we lose it. A lost lover is a person that we cherish with fervent admiration, who in the moment, seemed a piece of our life that would never end.