Based on the memoir of Sergey Fetisov, Peeter Rebane’s achingly romantic Firebird is released in US theaters today. After receiving its world premiere at last year’s BFI Flare, the film went on be a queer festival hit, garnering award recognition along the way including honorable mention for Best First Feature at Frameline and snatching wins at FilmOut San Diego for Best Narrative Feature, Best Director and Best Actor for Tom Prior, who co-wrote the screenplay with Rebane.
The film opens in the midst of the Cold War in Soviet occupied Estonia in 1977 where we meet a twunky young private, Sergey (an expressive, soulful Prior), who’s doing military service at Haapsalu air force base, but dreaming of attending drama school in Moscow. Despite the tough environment, with a bullying full-on Full Metal Jacket-aspiring Sergeant (Markus Luik) in control of his every waking hour, Sergey hasn’t lost his sensitivity. He’s an observer, with a photographer’s eye, a poet’s soul, and a philosophical outlook on life. In a beautifully shot sequence, we see him take a nighttime swim in the sea with his pals Volodja (Jake Henderson) and Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), who appears to be smitten with Sergey as they flirt with one another in the water. Everything changes though with the sudden arrival of a dashing fighter pilot, Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii, with matinee idol looks and charm to spare). Roman immediately catches the eye of both Luisa and Segey, but it’s Sergey whom he falls for as the two steal increasingly more off-base time together, including a trip to see Stravinsky’s Firebird, which enchants the younger Sergey. Despite the difference in age and rank—and, one suspects, sexual experience—there isn’t any sense of Roman taking advantage of Sergey.
This isn’t a tale of angst-ridden gays; both men are at ease with their sexuality, but the Soviet Union is not. The KGB is determined to eliminate any physical expression of love between men from society, especially its military ranks. Stalin had recrimilaized consensual sex between men in 1934, with Article 121 making it punishable by up to five years hard labour in prison. So when the sinister Major Zverev (Margus Prangel)—a movie villain often surrounded in his own cigarette smoke—receives an anonymous tip that Roman is in a relationship with a private, he becomes hellbent on securing proof and seeing him locked up.
As the film moves forward a few years, and Sergey gets more drawn into his acting studies, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is frequently referenced, with echoes of those star-crossed lovers in the lives of Sergey and Roman; the illegality of their relationship becoming the main barrier to their bliss and the source of much of the film’s tension.
It’s an aspect that makes this an interesting companion piece to Sebastian Meise’s Great Freedom—part of which is set in a similar period in Germany when gay men continued to be criminalized following the Second World War—and Arthur Dong’s excellent documentary Coming Out Under Fire, examining the history of the treatment of LGBTQ members of the military by the US government. It also made me think of the many men in uniform in the captivating images in Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell’s LOVING A Photographic History of Men in Love 1850s-1950s, and the now forgotten stories behind each of those couples.
Although Firebird is a sweeping military epic on the surface, Rebane doesn’t let any of the period trappings distract him from the narrative. Instead, he keeps things intimate, focused on the love between the two men and allows us time to witness the deep connection that grows between them. The film has an appealingly gentle, unhurried pace, perhaps a little slow at times, but things are never dull and the romance and great chemistry between the leads keeps things engaging. The dialogue is spoken in English with Russian accents that thankfully never risk becoming a distraction, à la Leto in House of Gucci. The brief sex scenes are hot, if “tasteful”, rather like a military themed Physique Pictorial photoshoot come to life, as the camera lingers on their chiseled muscular bodies. While not particularly explicit, they don’t feel restrained, and these sequences are gorgeously shot, with the actors convincingly conveying the passion between the men.
This a promising debut narrative feature from Rebane, with some majestic work by cinematographer Mait Mäekivi, whom Rebane has collaborated with on several previous projects. The entire production is overseen with a painterly eye, with several visually stunning sequences, particularly the swimming set pieces that punctuate the film. There’s also some excellent production and costume design that convey the austerity and uptight military millieu without being too chilly, and the visual effects, such as Roman in action as a fighter pilot, are well-executed especially given the film’s budget.
Firebird is a delicate and ultimately powerfully moving true queer love story that feels like a tribute to the millions of men whose secret romances died with them.
By James Kleinmann