Last night I watched a film, that eerily took on a feel of a movie I had seen before, yet this was a new 2015 film, Child 44. It took me a little while as the movie moved along, I realized that it was based on the same evidence that was presented in a 1995 film, Citizen X. So I watched the film before I decided to investigate further the similarities between the two films. It turns out both films are based on the actual horrific story of the Soviet era serial killer Andrei Chikatilo. I thought I would review the films and compare them. Citizen X was filmed in Hungary, while Child 44 was filmed in the Czech Republic. Both locales provided the best contextual geography for the actual Russian location, and Soviet era architecture and vehicles and trains were superb in both films.
The irony here is that both films are based on books, one is non-fiction, and the other is fiction. Citizen X is based on a true crime story, The Killer Department: Detective Victor Burakov’s Eight Year Hunt for the Most Savage Serial Killer in Russian History (1993). Child 44 is a fictional work that places the crime in the time of the latter years of Stalin’s reign in the Soviet Union. While the one book traces the actual investigation of the vilest serial killer in Soviet history in its historical time frame of the late 1970’s to 1990, and is a brilliant telling of how difficult it was to carry on an investigation in that era of the Soviet empire, the work of fiction, Child 44, is exactly that, fiction. The facts of the crime are fairly consistent to that of the original crime, and the facts are substantial enough for someone, as I did, to connect the two together. The distinction of Child 44 is that it places the story in that time frame of the Stalinist state where paranoia and denial are the core practices of the system and the populace they seek to control. There is a 25 time span difference in historical context for both stories. The one focuses on the man behind the investigation and the Soviet system he faced. The other shows the deep roots of that Soviet system post-World War 2, or as the Russians call it, The Great Patriotic War. The first decade of the Cold War.
HBO’s Great Success Rewarded with Recognition
Citizen X (1995), is the HBO film that is based on the actual account of the chief investigator, Viktor Burakov, who fought the Soviet ideology and bureaucratic system for 8 years tracking down Chikatilo. The portrayal of Burakov was brilliantly played by Northern Irish actor, Stephen Rea. The senior policeman who recruited Bukarov is played by Donald Sutherland, who plays Mikhail Fetisov, Max Von Sydow played Dr. Alexandr Bukhanovsky, a psychiatrist. The villain, Andrei Chikatilo is portrayed by Jeffrey DeMunn, a brilliant character actor.
This HBO production was well developed and the teleplay and script flowed smoothly. The director, Chris Gerolmo, who also wrote the teleplay, was brilliant in creating the perfect scene that heightened the tension of the investigation and the conflict between characters in the story. The dialog was not stilted but rather revealed the tensions the investigator faced in a system that is in complete denial that murder happens in the Soviet Union. You get to feel the tension of the investigator when he wants to officially request assistance in profiling criminals from the FBI. The Soviets do not want to go to the US administration and ask for help, and keep putting road blocks in the successful pursuit of the investigation, but they are unable to solve the crime as more and more children are abducted and murdered. Eventually they concede they need help, and the assistance proves timely in completing a successful investigation.
There are the stressors on relationships that you see in such a tense situation, that are compounded by the high restrictions of a tightly controlled system over the ordinary lives of citizens. Then there are the political shenanigans and power struggles, intimidation, threats, coercion, paranoia, pressure from Communist Party bosses, and all the related interplay related to the machinery of a totalitarian state.
I have to say that I am biased when it comes to films about the Soviet era of history. I have always enjoyed the study of Russian history and literature and of Soviet films as well. This film made in 1995, barely two years into the new democracy after a dismantled Soviet Empire, illustrates the openness of the time to a film such as this one. It was not done in a bombastic way of a put down or a belittling of the Soviet regime, but rather how the regime was coping with change within its society and coming to grips with crimes it could not solve on its own. It was the Party apparatus and it’s system of ideology and control that came into conflict with the situation on the ground. By default it would not allow people to do their jobs, and to function within the realm of reality and truth and actually following up on the evidence of a crime that led to proper conclusions, rather than supporting the party ideology desired outcomes that did not conflict against the Party beliefs.
I highly recommend this film for its superb screenplay, and equally superb cast and script. The acting was very good and it made for a compelling story.
HBO was rewarded for its excellent production and presentation, and made cable TV a new and rising player in the network TV battles. The accolades and awards that came in for Citizen X were outstanding.
- CableACE Awards
- Best Movie or Miniseries
- Best Supporting Actor in a Movie or Miniseries (Jeffrey DeMunn)
- Edgar Awards
- Best TV Feature or MiniSeries (Chris Gerolmo)
- Emmy Awards
- Golden Globe Awards
- Sitges Film Festival
- Best Film
My Rating: Citizen X gets a 4 ½ stars out of 5.
On the Other Hand – The Agony of Child 44 Put To The Big Screen
It seems for all the good that came to and from Citizen X, the opposite was equally true for Child 44. I watched this film with great interest as I have watched pretty well any film that has come out whether in English or foreign language that deals with that particular era of history.
The Stalinist era of Soviet history is brutal and reigned for near 30 years of bloodshed, murder and mayhem, from revolution, to population control, the manipulation of the food supply chain, and the starvation of ethnic populations (Ukraine 1930’s), the purge of the military high command in 1937-38, the assassination of Leon Trotsky in 1940, the gulag camp system that lasted to the very end of the Soviet era to isolate or exterminate threats, the Russification process that the Soviets retained from their Romanoff predecessors, to control all the conquered nations after The Great Patriotic War, that now is part of the problem in Eastern Ukraine. It is all rooted in Stalin, and his paranoia and need to control, and the use of state murder and exile to eliminate threats, real or imagined. This whole era has much to offer in social history for the arts, especially the use of film to tell a story.
Citizen X limited itself to telling the story of the investigation. The twist in Child 44 was that the book was filled with all kinds of information from the Stalinist era, from the brutal paranoia that was rampant in the Soviet society and used meticulously by the various branches of the government and its departments of internal security and secret police, to the threats of exile at any time, interrogations that used torture for confessions, and executions without appeal. The threats of death were imminent and there was little room for a fair trial or equity in the courts. The verdict was as sure as the arrest made. The book captures that fear and mindset, and the problem was translating all that heaviness to film. How do you in a little over two hours capture that kind of society and still say the story of a crime that is by its nature denied to even be able to exist in Stalinist Russia?
The story starts off in an awkward way. I know there was a need for character development, and Tom Hardy was superb in his role as Leo Demidov, tracing his beginnings in an orphanage where he escapes and then joins the ranks of the military in the Great Patriotic War, fighting all the way to the Fall of Berlin in 1945. He becomes a great Hero of the Soviet Union, for climbing up on top of the Reichstag, and placing the Soviet flag over the defeated Nazi state capital. All this background is all well and good, but it could have been simply avoided, in order to tell the compelling story of child murder in the Soviet Union. So it kind is out of place. Not that I minded, but it did not seem to fit the main story of the movie.
Noomi Rapace plays Demidov’s wife Raisa Demidova and is a supportive character throughout and you see some complexity of the challenges of living in the Soviet regime that is filled with state informers, betrayals, interrogations, executions and exiles as a normative means of living in that kind of tense state of fear and paranoia. Her character could have been more developed and at times it seem awkward and an add-on to the story. Sometimes choppy and out of place, and at others just there and not enough. The director, Daniel Espinosa, just did not do it justice. Ridley Scott who bought the film rights to the film, would have been the better choice for the director and would have shot a totally different film.
There are some great scenes that are carried by Tom Hardy, and notably these include supporting cast members Gary Oldman as General Neterov, and Joel Kinnaman as Vasili Nikitin. Over all it is Hardy’s acting that carries these scenes. He strong, and he is weak and human, and vulnerable, and seems to carry the emotion and intensity one would think such a person would carry and exude. Oldman is good and strong as the general, and comes across as one who understands the passion driving Hardy to want to catch the child killer. They work well in tandem, and in the end it proves to be beneficial to both parties. The representative of the antagonist in this whole drama is Kinnaman as Nikitin. He is a vile decrepit man, and one would rather see removed out of the way. He is ambitious and he is disrespected by his peers. He wants to advance, even over the bodies of those who get betrayed and killed. He is a jealous man and has an agenda that becomes his undoing. When I see I character that “I love to hate”, you know what he is doing. He is acting his role well, and he is pushing my buttons. I have to hand it to Kinnaman, he did that for me in this role.
The film was released in April 2015 and generated a lot of controversy in Eastern Europe, most notably in the former Soviet states. So much so, that the various film authorities declined to show the film in movie theatres. Considering the current political climate in Russia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet states, and their effective boycott of this movie, I can understand that there was economic fallout for the film.
Child 44 was a major box office bomb, grossing $1,224,330 in the US. Lionsgate pre-sold the film to overseas distributors, which limited their exposure to the $50,000,000 budget to under $13,000,000.
Hopefully the DVD release and streaming services will get it some decent viewership.
It is a story worth telling, but there was so much hard work to work on these thick Russian accents, and getting all the sets right, the uniforms, the trains, and all that, that people forgot to focus on the main thing. The story of the child murders. It should never have been a story about the war hero investigator. It should have been about the investigation of the children who were murdered.
My rating: 2 out 5.
Only reason there are 2, is Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman. Ridley Scott should have directed.
If you love the history of the Soviet era, it may entice you to watch this film. If not, I can understand why you would choose to pass. I just found it interesting to compare the two films that were trying to tell the same story, and how one of these two attempts revealed how badly you can mess up a really good story. Citizen X stands out. Check it out. It is on YouTube.
Citizen X – Full Film