Amid the torrent of news about Putin’s Russia and its corrupt imperial rampage into Ukraine comes the movie Firebird, now streaming on Amazon Prime. This Estonian-British coproduction recounts a tragic true-life gay romance in the Soviet air force in the 1970s. Sex between men in the Soviet military was punishable at that time by years in a gulag, and though such laws no longer exist in today’s Russia there are strong echoes of Putin’s authoritarian rule in this period story.
The movie is based on a memoir by Sergey Fetisov about his experiences as a conscript and his affair with a hotshot pilot on an air base in Soviet Estonia. As a private, boyish Sergey (British actor Tom Prior) is quietly enduring the hardships of military life when the handsome pilot Roman (Ukrainian actor Oleg Zagorodnii), a privileged lieutenant, arrives on base. The attraction between them is immediate. Before long, a KGB agent sniffs out their affair, so Roman marries Luisa (Russian actress Diana Pozharskaya), a friend of Sergey’s and a fellow soldier, and Sergey leaves the military to become an actor. A few years later, Roman takes on an assignment in Moscow, far from his wife and daughter, and moves in with Sergey. But suspicions arise, and the relationship is doomed.
Scenes of clandestine love and official tyranny in Firebird are shot beautifully in the cool blue-green landscapes of the Baltic, and actors in parts both big and small are thoroughly persuasive despite the awkward retro touch of having them speak in English with various accents. Directed by Estonian Peeter Rebane from a screenplay by Rebane and Prior, the movie is a decidedly old-fashioned romantic tearjerker. For audiences experiencing today’s neofascist political surge, however, that might be a welcome antidote.
Great Freedom is another recent film that takes viewers back to more repressive times. It recalls life in postwar West Germany under the infamous Paragraph 175, which prohibited gay sex acts. Part of the criminal code established by the German Empire, Paragraph 175 was strengthened by the Nazis — who sent homosexuals to concentration camps — and left on the books in West Germany through 1994, when it was abolished after reunification with the East.
Great Freedom, which is filmed in German and streamable with subtitles for free to Mubi subscribers and for rent on Apple TV and Amazon, follows the life of Hans Hoffmann — not the beloved Provincetown art guru, but a fictional character played by Franz Rogowski — as he furtively engages in gay sex and is repeatedly sent to prison.
As an inmate, and despite brutal punishments, Hans is a resourceful survivor who always manages to make intimate connections: first with a younger boyfriend, later with a teacher who was arrested with him in a public men’s room, and finally with Viktor (Georg Friedrich), an older drug addict who succumbs to Franz’s insistent friendship despite protests of being “not that way.”
Told largely in flashbacks and a jumbled chronology, filmed with a grim hyper-real gaze by director Sebastian Meise and subtly acted by a nearly all-male cast (the odd-looking Rogowski is particularly riveting), the movie has a resigned, almost ironic air to it, particularly in the antiheroic way Hans adapts to and internalizes his societal abnegation. That lifts Great Freedom above the more accessible, accusatory Firebird and onto a more artistic plane.
Three Thousand Years of Longing, released in theaters on Aug. 26 and now available for rent on several streaming sites from Amazon to Vudu, gives the idea of unlikely romance a supernatural spin. Based on a short story by A.S. Byatt and co-written and directed by George Miller, the great Australian auteur of the Mad Max films (not to mention Babe, Happy Feet, Lorenzo’s Oil, and The Witches of Eastwick), Three Thousand Years of Longing stars otherworldly icons Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba and relates tales that hark back to ancient Middle East civilizations and the Ottoman Empire, leading up to modern England.
Swinton plays Alithea, an academic “narratologist” (or storytelling specialist) with a charmingly nerdy, self-satisfied mien. She describes herself as happily unattached after a short marriage in her youth. Following creepy encounters in the Istanbul airport and at an academic conference, she is “overcome” by her imagination and faints. Shopping later at the city’s grand bazaar, she buys a decorative glass bottle that she opens in her hotel room. In a blast of colorful smoke, the Djinn, or genie, played by Elba, appears and offers her three wishes.
Alithea resists, but ultimately falls for Djinn, who explains his 3,000-year-old plight like a beefcake Scheherazade. His stories are episodic and erotic, supernatural and swashbuckling. Many critics complained of being bored by Djinn’s ramblings and the movie’s metaphysical musings. But Miller is a consummate fabulist, and what Alithea calls the “impossible” love story between her and her Djinn (that is, between her and what she conjures up) is entertaining in every way. It may not be as tense or violent as Mad Max: Fury Road, but it once again presents a compelling female protagonist with an invincible will and a fantasy world that takes us out of our everyday existence while commenting upon it. It’s well worth the trip.