BFI Flare ’21 – ‘Firebird’ Is A Melodramatic True Story Of Forbidden Gay Love In The Cold War

Two men, shirtless in the sea stand close to each other, both looking back towards something that is off screen - they look like they have stolen a moment of quiet together. The sea, out of focus in the background, is jewel-blue.
Tom Prior and Oleg Zagorodii in Firebird

Director Peeter Rebane and leading actor Tom Prior (The Theory of Everything and Kingsman: The Secret Service) fought to bring Sergey Fetisov’s memoir of a secret love affair between two soldiers in the Soviet Air Force to the big screen.  Co-written and co-produced by the pair, Firebird is a sensitive if not slightly melodramatic true story of gay love in Soviet-occupied Estonia. 

Firebird opens in 1977 with Sergey (Prior) serving his last few weeks of conscription. His girlfriend Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya) has started planning their life together, but Sergey soon becomes distracted by dashing fighter pilot Lieutenant Roman Medveyev (Oleg Zagorodnii).

Looking like silver screen icons of the bygone age of Hollywood, the two men bond over their shared interest in the arts. Sergey once had dreams of becoming a stage actor and a night at the ballet seeing Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’ brings the pair closer together. Their relationship is all clandestine late-night encounters and longing glances. Luisa hasn’t spotted their connection, obviously placing herself as the third member of a love triangle.

An anonymous report exposing Roman’s indiscretions is a reminder that sexual relations between two men wasn’t just frowned upon, it could be punished by five year’s hard labour. The pair must make a decision between risking their lives in the face of escalating KGB investigations, or hiding their feelings. It’s desperately romantic, even if the film  chooses melodrama over realism.

Firebird’s narrative does take the most obvious turns. The weakness of this film is its reliance on obvious twists and cliched character development. Sergey embarks on an acting career, whilst Roman continues in the military. Tensions heighten when Roman embarks on married, domestic life with a woman whilst Sergey is more relaxed about his sexuality. Firebird leans less on the perilous action of being gay in the Soviet era, but instead on more clandestine affair cliché. Despite the obvious journey, it’s a beautifully realised account of love flourishing against a cold, loveless background. Prior and Zagorodnii look good together, Prior sweet and wide-eyed whilst Zagorodnii is handsome and chiselled. The camera zoom is on their faces, every micro-expression of longing picked up by the lens. 

The choice to use an international cast speaking English won’t please everyone. Using Estonian dialogue with subtitles may have added an authenticity because at times the Eastern Bloc accents are a little distracting;Parasite proved that if a film is good enough, people will happily read the subtitles.

Prior and Oleg Zagorodnii embrace in a tight hug, grasping each other in desperation. They are light by a fluorescent blue light that drowns out all other colour.
Still from Firebird

Firebird looks visually stunning. The intimate scenes are romantic, with late-night swims and dimly lit lovemaking. Some may criticise that the romance is sanitized with the camera moving away when the mood heats up. This is a film about stolen glances, not steamy nights. For a debut feature director who is famed for music videos and tour documentaries (he was also a Eurovision producer), Rebenae knows how to create an atmosphere.  

The production design should also be commended. The story can be told between any two men, in any part of the world, in any era in history. It is clear through sets, costume, and sound that this is a Soviet-occupied state in the 1970s. What Firebird lacks in originality, it makes up for in atmosphere. The threat this will all be taken away from them lingers over every scene together. In the daytime, the coldness of military life is reflected in the grey colour palette. The scenes transform from a sterile greyness to a warmness as they meet under dim lights, and in the reflection of the moonlight by the river.

Firebird will be familiar to many romantic film fans. It relies on well used tropes that were better executed by Call Me by Your Name and Brokeback Mountain. Anyone looking for that uplifting gay love story should move elsewhere. While it’s a beautiful film, it brings nothing new to the library of LBGTQ+ movies.

by Amelia Harvey

Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy

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