An executionor seeks redemption in this unusual, often hallucinatory tale set in Stalin’s Russia
Dir. Natasha Merkulova, Aleksei Chupov. Russia/Estonia/France. 2021. 125 mins.
A state executioner has a crisis of conscience, remembers his soul and seeks redemption… There are few cultures other than Russia where this idea could possibly pass muster as a fictional conceit, but the tradition of Dostoevskian angst and Gogolian absurdity provide plausible backbone for Captain Volkonogov Escaped, a powerful and troubling drama about the Stalin era.
This is a film to revel in, and to argue about – and for some, no doubt, to recoil from – but it’s one of the most original works of the year
Following their much-noticed Intimate Parts and The Man Who Surprised Everyone, writing-directing team of Natasha Merkulova and Alexei Chupov offer an involving and surprisingly hallucinatory take on Soviet history here that is part political thriller, part dream-like redemption quest. The film promises to cause a stir not just for its cinematic verve and narrative drive, but for the questions it raises – not least, about whether such a metaphysical approach can conceivably do justice to the complex horrors of Soviet history. A strong central performance from man-of-the-moment Yuri Borisov – also seen this year in Cannes contenders Compartment No.6 and Petrov’s Flu – will add heft to the film’s potential as an art circuit breakthrough.
The setting in Leningrad in 1938, with the era of arbitrary and merciless purges in full effect. Captain Fyodor Volkonogov (Borisov) is a KGB officer – one of a cadre of muscular, merciless young men who, when not using “special interrogation methods” to force made-up confessions out of innocent civilians, engage in jolly male bonding exercises, exchanging banter, even doing folk dances and singing sentimental harmonies.
One day, Volkonogov is striding back to the palatial Bureau HQ – a confident, dashing muscleman in his official uniform of red tracksuit and black blouson – when one of his colleagues comes plummeting from a window above. Hearing fellow officers summoned by superiors to be ‘re-assessed’ – a process which means torture, summary execution and rapid burial – Volkonogov goes on the run, swapping his uniform for civilian garb. He soon finds himself enlisted to dump a consignment of newly executed colleagues in a mass grave; in a bold nightmare sequence, which requires the viewer to take a considerable leap of narrative faith, his best friend Veretennikov (Nikita Kukushkin) rises from the dead to warn Volkonogov to look to his soul.
In a desperate mission for redemption - and with ruthless pursuer Major Golovyna (Timofei Tribuntsev) hot on his heels - Volkonogov seeks out the relatives of those he has killed, to tell them how their loved ones were forced into confessing to trumped-up charges, and hoping that one of them will grant him forgiveness. But they each have different reasons for denying him that release: one woman because she has gone mad, one elderly man because the web of lies and paradoxes of Soviet ‘justice’ is so inescapable. An encounter with a terrifyingly lucid and illusionless child seems likely to be the last step on Volkonogov’s journey, but there’s one more station on his personal route to Calvary, which is where the film takes a fully religious, and 100% Dostoevskian, turn.
Writing together with DoP Mart Taniel, Natasha Merkulova and Alexei Chupov make bold moves from the start to establish a mixed register of tones – not least in the fanciful presentation of the KGB men in their uniforms, which suggest a mix of superhero, stormtrooper and Clockwork Orange thugs. This visual presentation supports Volkonogov’s superficial status of good-guy rebel action hero, which is systematically chipped away at until he reaches his final stages of bedraggled abjection. His visual presence is the focus for the film’s contrast between the heroic monumentalism of Soviet iconography – including the Bureau’s grandiose offices – and the squalor and misery that lie behind it. One of the people Volkonogov encounters is a doctor now reduced to living among bodies in a morgue, with death being simply an aspect of everyday normality in this universe.
The grimness goes hand in hand with pitch-black humour, as in the scene where the Captain encounters the father of one of his victims, and in the character of ‘Uncle Misha’ (Igor Savochkin), the humourless officer who teaches his men how to execute swiftly, efficiently and without wasting bullets, as if on a production line (images of vintage industrial machinery emphasise the mechanical nature of the Soviet system).
Mixing historical realism with a degree of anachronistic fantasy, as in those costumes, the film creates an image of Leningrad as hell, constantly revealing deeper and darker layers beneath its surface – ruined chasms in the cracks of the grandiose city, the edge of a seemingly infinite frozen sea. The wilder touches are undeniably contentious, including the gore-and-Gothic nightmare scene, a chase that is pure action thriller. The film never quite overcomes its problem in setting up Volkonogov – albeit with knowingly contradictory intent – as a potentially heroic seeker after redemption. The more pleasurable, even thrilling aspects of the film lay it open to charges of sugaring an irreducibly bitter pill, and many will object to its very premise: the idea of a seasoned torturer seeking absolution for a system that by its nature brooks no forgiveness. Indeed, the magnetism and charisma of Borisov’s lead itself prove highly problematic: we’re likely to feel very uncomfortable cheering on the self-serving mission of someone who is after all a merciless killer, even if he does have a charismatic, candid screen presence.
Yet the film artfully contrives to highlight these questions, and the evasions that Volkonogov continues to hide behind, even as he gets closer to a moment of truth: when a man confesses to being a coward, and tells him that there’s no synonym for that word, we’re reminded of the inadequacy of the euphemism “special interrogation methods” that Volkonogov has used all along (and that modern regimes use to this day). This is a film to revel in, and to argue about – and for some, no doubt, to recoil from – but it’s one of the most original works of the year, and a stand-out of what is proving a rich spell in Russian cinema.
Production companies: Place of Power, Lookfilm, Homeless Bob Productions, Kinovista
International sales: Memento International, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Valery Fedorovich, Evgeny Nikishov, Aleksandr Plotnikov
Screenplay: Natasha Merkulova, Aleksey Chupov, Mart Taniel
Production design: Sergei Fevralev
Main cast: Yuri Borisov, Timofei Tribuntsev, Nikita Kukushkin, Aleksandr Yatsenko