Estonia shares a 330 km border with Russia. The small Baltic state knows what it means when its only eastern neighbor crosses it with its troops. The last time this happened was in 1944, when the Red Army replaced Nazi Germany as the occupier.
33 years later, the action of Peeter Rebane’s feature film debut “Firebird” begins, which is based on a true story. Private Sergei (Tom Prior) is on duty at a Soviet air base near the capital Tallinn. He feels like he’s in prison, even though he has two close friends at his side in Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya) and Volodja (Jake Thomas Henderson). Sergei plans to return to the home farm as soon as possible to help his single mother. But then the pilot and lieutenant Roman (Oleg Zagordnii) is transferred to his base. The two share a passion for photography, get closer for the first time while developing film and soon after begin a secret affair.
Stalin made homosexuality a punishable offense in 1933, and the notorious paragraph 121 of the penal code was in effect until 1993. After an anonymous denunciation, Roman was informed by his superior that he was sentenced to five years in a labor camp. From now on, this Major Zverev watches the pilot with eagle eyes and wants to find proof of the alleged crime. Margus Prangel plays Zverev in a villainess that’s close to Soviet James Bond film sinisters of the 70’s and 80’s, making the gay couple’s ongoing menace extremely vivid.
Estonian-born director and screenwriter Peeter Rebane contrasts this with the brief moments of happiness that Sergei and Roman experience together. A first passionate kiss in the forest, quick sex in a sea bay, a cozy evening in Roman’s room where they imagine a life together in Moscow.
“Then we could both go to the cinema whenever we wanted,” says Sergei. “And take a boat trip on the river and see all the performances of the Bolshoi Theater,” adds Roman a ‘Firebird’ performance in Tallinn, which gives the film its title, The men had previously heard a record together of the accompanying ballet music by Igor Stravinsky.
Russia is a country hostile to queers, and the law passed in 2013 against so-called “homosexual propaganda” once again massively restricted the scope for LGBTIQ people. To draw attention to this situation, “Firebird” is coming to cinemas this Tuesday, the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia and Transphobia. The day of action takes place on May 17, because on this day in 1990 homosexuality was removed from the list of mental illnesses by the World Health Organization.
The symbolic launch date of “Firebird” is welcome. However, it takes place at a time when it is difficult to find sympathy for screen characters in Russian uniforms. The fact that Roman is played by a Ukrainian actor doesn’t necessarily make it any easier. It’s also irritating that director Rebane, who became known primarily for his music videos, isn’t worthy of a critical look or comment on the Soviet occupation of his homeland. Maybe he would have overloaded his debut with that.
After an hour he moves the main scene to Moscow. Sergei attends the acting academy there. He is completely immersed in his studies – until Luisa visits him a year later and invites him to her wedding. When she tells him she’s marrying Roman, Sergei has to use all his acting skills to keep from being torn apart by heartbreak. He still loves Roman. And this one too, but he doesn’t want to give up his career. As a result, a “Brokeback Mountain” reminiscent dynamic develops between the two, which is painful but realistic.
With his conventional staging, Peeter Rebane does not reach the depth of a work like “Grosse Freiheit”, which recently told a harrowing story about two victims of the German anti-gay paragraph 175. But “Firebird” also shows how a violent system bends people, robs them of their happiness and life. The lines of connection to today’s Russia are obvious.