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MOSCOW (Reuters Life!) - A World War Two epic by Oscar-winning Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov opened on Thursday, wading into an intra-government fight over some efforts to rehabilitate Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
With a budget of $55 million, "Burned by the Sun 2" is Russia's most expensive film ever and was made to form part of the elaborate World War Two celebrations Moscow is preparing for the 65th anniversary of May 9, known as Victory Day in Russia.
A sequel to Mikhalkov's 1994 film by the same name, which deeply impressed Western audiences and won the 1995 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, the action moves forward from 1936 to 1941-1943, and resurrects the original's main characters.
A deeply foreboding, pockmarked Stalin, surrounded by nervous secret police officers and framed in hazy sunlight, begins the three-hour film and is part of a nightmare fantasy of Colonel Kotov, played by Mikhalkov.
Horrified of upsetting Stalin, the NKVD secret police officers sweat over what to do about a menacing wasp hovering over the dictator's jam on toast. Kotov, filled with rage, suddenly smashes Stalin's face into a large cake bearing the Soviet leader's pipe-smoking profile in thick chocolate.
"For the veterans, he is a saint... for those and their relatives who were in gulags, he is evil, a tyrant," said Mikhalkov, sporting his trademark mustache and multiple rings.
"If you don't control this and balance the two sides out, an unimaginable metamorphosis could happen," he told Reuters in an interview.
A deeply patriotic nation with a sentimental World War Two attachment, Russian society is divided on how to remember Stalin. Some say his heroic victory outweighs his iron fist, which has led rights groups to warn that a dangerous rehabilitation is under way.
"The film shows how everyone was so scared of him, it really seized on that dread," said engineer Nadezhda, 50, who was visibly moved after seeing the film in a central Moscow cinema on Thursday evening.
Rights campaigners have been alarmed by what they characterize as an attempt by some officials -- especially strong during the 2000-2008 presidency of Vladimir Putin -- to diminish the atrocities committed during Stalin's rule by focusing on his achievements.
Putin, a former KGB agent who now serves as prime minister, has praised Stalin for creating the Soviet industrial powerhouse and for winning the war, but also criticized his purges.
President Dmitry Medvedev has condemned Stalin's rule and said last October he was concerned that most young Russians were unaware of the scope of Stalin's oppression. He said the crimes of the past should not be forgiven.
Many Russians were shocked last year when Stalin's grandson Yevgeny Dzhugashvili sought damages from a newspaper and a radio station for comments that he had ordered the deaths of innocents. The lawsuits followed a refurbishment of a Moscow metro station with a decoration heaping praise on Stalin.
Figures vary dramatically on the number of deaths from gulag labor camps, executions and famine under Stalin, and while Russian officials put the figure simply in the millions, Western historians say it ranges between 30-60 million.
While Mikhalkov captures a deep sense of fear surrounding Stalin, suffering on the part of the Russian population at the hands of the German enemy is played out in full.
The camaraderie of young, enthusiastic troops is pitched against a gory backdrop of bleeding soldiers, their guts and severed limbs spread across snow-covered fields, and villagers are burned alive in a barn.
Contrasts of a multi-ethnic Soviet Union are painted with stark imagery: an atheist is baptized while stranded at sea, busts of Stalin fly out of an exploded ship, and Muslim Tatars pray before battle while Russians stroke photos from home.
Mikhalkov, whose father Sergei penned the Soviet anthem and authored poems relished by Stalin, dismissed the notion of rehabilitation.
Tensions stirred earlier this week over plans by the Moscow city government to erect 10 posters of Stalin around the capital in honor of the World War Two victory.
Russia's Culture Minister Alexander Avdeyev hit back at the poster plans on Tuesday, telling Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy that Stalin had ruined millions of lives and was to blame for Russia "losing almost an entire century of its development."
"Burned by the Sun 2" will compete at the Cannes Film Festival next month. The original won the Grand Prix 16 years ago. The third and final film in the series, "Citadel," comes out in the autumn.
Additional reporting by Yuri Pushkin, editing by Paul Casciato