‘Firebird’ Goes Behind the Iron Curtain for a Steamy Cold War Romance

The cold war has never been so hot as in the steamy soldier story “Firebird,” an adaptation of “The Story of Roman,” a memoir by Russian actor and former Soviet soldier Sergey Fetisov. The forbidden romance drama was directed by Peeter Rebane and Tom Prior, who also stars as Sergey Serebrennikov.

The film begins at the Haapsalu Air Force Base in Soviet-occupied Estonia, in 1977, when paranoia runs high, and acceptance is as non-existent as the god the Party disavowed under Stalin. Joking about this is the first thing Sergey does to catch the attention of the KGB. But everyone else has already been keeping hungry eyes on the young private. 

Sergey’s conscription is almost over, and the air base’s commanding officer, Colonel Kuznetsov (Nicholas Woodeson), offers him a position if he stays. The colonel’s secretary Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya) sets her sights on a future with Sergey, but the newly arrived fighter pilot Lieutenant Roman Medveyev (Oleg Zagordnii) targets his privates. Article 121 of the Soviet criminal code, as cited by KGB officer Zverev (Margus Prangel), states consensual sex between men was a crime punishable by five years of hard labor. The love triangle at the center makes it even harder.

“Firebird” is not a subtle film. When the lovers sneak off the base for an undersea adventure in the Baltic, jet fighters fly buzz the waves at the end of their subversively submersed hand-job. The orgasmic fireworks climaxes in “Deep Throat” are subdued, comparatively. Roman’s model airplane is a Freudian delight. The melodrama is as heavy-handed as the softcore is muffled, but the romance comes across stiff. This is partially because most of the characters speak English with a Russian accent, burdening the film with a phony atmosphere, considering they are supposed to be speaking in their native tongue, and you don’t do that with an accent.

The film opens with a sequence of parallel foreshadowing, Sergey, fellow Russian soldier Volodja (Jake Thomas Henderson) and Luisa, have broken curfew for a midnight skinny dip in the Baltic Sea. Sergey and Luisa brush their hands on a rock, but go no further than a tease.

Pozharskaya is magnetic as the center of the ultimate trio, and Luisa should have had much more screen time, and a deeper exploration. She is the element which sets “Firebird” apart from similarly themed films. She lays out her emotional promise as a widow, confronting and protecting, regretting and condemning. Pozharskaya’s eyes tear at personal betrayal, not societal regimentation, highlighting what Luisa could have brought.

The story of the clandestine courtship is shown through a honeyed filter and candlelit civility as the romance unfolds in the shadows. The colonel assigns the existing serviceman as the lieutenant’s driver as an additional last-minute duty. Sergey, a photographer for the military journal, initially bonds with Roman over a shared passion for the art of photography, and the covert thrills the camera presents for openly scoping out men. Beautifully photographed, the film fetishizes the melodrama, matching color schemes to dramatic themes. Weather also colors the emotional palette, when it rains, it pours on everyone, and when it snows, it snows alone. 

Sergey, who is planning on moving to Moscow to become an actor after his conscription ends, confesses he’s never seen a “real ballet.” Roman takes him to a rehearsal performance of Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” which ultimately sparks the investigation. Sergey is eager to leave military life behind. Roman is a devoted officer, with a heavy payload. His mission is keeping the Soviet airspace safe from missile-equipped MiG fighter jets, and nuclear-warhead ready B52 bombers of the NATO fleet. Roman ultimately scares himself with his own recklessness because he is actually more in love with duty.

Sergey’s life as an actor after the service may not be as fun as the classes on HBO’s “Barry,” but his reading of “to be or not to be” is an education on the placement of accents on the spoken word. The debate over “Romeo and Juliet” emphasizes how art is truth, but to be true to thine own self, truth is something you have to keep to yourself.

The period detail is visually impressive, catching the drab utility of Moscow apartments, and attractive Estonian locations. Attention to the era’s attitudes is limited to self-conscious one-note hyper-masculine archetypes and old-fashioned uniform fetishes. The delicate dance of forbidden love in an oppressive authoritarian regime breaks no other rules. The boy-meets-boy romance is played straight. 

The queer community in Mother Russia is still shrouded by an Iron Curtain. The closing titles explain that article 121 was annulled in 1993, but notes news against “homosexual propaganda” were imposed in 2013. “Firebird” calls for compassion but presumes a losing battle. 

Firebird” releases April 29 in select theaters.