Citizen X [1995] – A Captivating Tale about the Hunt for a Serial Killer

The drastic effects of the failed economic, social, and political climate in the Soviet Union after mid 1960s are often dubbed as ‘Era of Stagnation’. Since Leonid Brezhnev’s governance (1964-82) led Soviet Union to this period of disillusionment, the term ‘Brezhnevian Stagnation’ is also used. After Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Cherneko and Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power, but the systemic flaw remained as a constant, threatening factor. Eventually, the long, slow death of Soviet Union happened in December 1991. Nevertheless, none of the experts around the world anticipated the collapse of Soviet Union. And so from the political and cultural perspective, West was intrigued to study the decade before USSR’s collapse. Weighing in the gruesome last years of USSR, the story of Andrei Chikatilo becomes one of the perfect representation of the pluralistic ignorance prevalent in the 80s Russian society. 

On 22 December 1978, 32 year old Ukrainian Andrei Chikatilo stabbed 9 year old Yelena Zakotnova to death. By the time Chikatilo stood inside an iron cage facing the courtroom trial in 1992, he killed 52 persons (it’s speculated that he killed more than 100 people and most of his victims were not found and were under the age of 17). For each of the murder, he was awarded death sentences. Chikatilo, the factory worker, committed most of his gruesome act with a kitchen knife and a rope, which he often carried in his bag. He often stabbed his victims more than dozen times, sometimes mutilating their sexual organs and even removing their eyes. By 1982, the leading investigator of the case Victor Burakov confirmed that it’s serial killing and informed to his superiors about the pattern of killing. But, the investigation was hampered by lack of forensic techniques and man power. 

Most importantly, the superiors weren’t interested in publicizing the killings, since they firmly believed serial killing is a ‘western phenomenon’. They blamed homosexuals, gypsies, mental patients, and violent gangs. Of course, this is the era when Russian state media reported about drugs on the streets of USA, but maintained that their society is crime-free. The stagnancy in the upper echelons of bureaucracy led to more killings and deliberately deviated investigation techniques. Chris Gerolmo’s 1995 TV movie (aired in HBO) Citizen X chronicles the hunt for the Russian serial killer from Mr. Burakov’s perspective. It is based on Robert Cullen’s non-fiction book The Killer Department. 

Citizen X is a fairly good presentation of the case, despite the moderate production values and limited running time to stage the humongous 8 year span of investigation. The TV movie doesn't have any unique visual language, but the premise and fine cast keep us intrigued throughout. Stephen Rea (The Crying Game, V for Vendetta) plays Viktor Burakov, the passionate forensic expert/detective who finds it hard to move alongside apathetic bureaucrats. Donald Sutherland plays the righteous as well as the crafty colonel Fetisov, while Jeffrey DeMunn did the role of vulnerable yet cold-blooded killer Chikatilo. Max Von Sydow made cameo as psychiatrist Buchanovsky – the man who has played a crucial role in constructing the killer’s profile. 

In the initial parts of the narrative, Stephen Rea’s performance wasn’t very engaging. Part of the blame rests on the script, which got through the facts rather than realize inner life of the central character Burakov. What’s at stake is explained in words, but there’s no real emotional engagement with Burakov’s resolve. However, gradually the performance gets better. The screen space Rea shares with Donald Sutherland brings few interesting scenes. Mr. Sutherland pulls off his surefooted colonel character with aplomb. And, Stephen Rea was at his best when he’s given the chance to explore Burakov’s mental breakdown. Fetisov at a later point reads an FBI guy’s report, in which he states that they used to reassign the duties of lawmen working on serial-killing cases every 18 months. Burakov headed the gruesome investigation (cornered by all bureaucrats) for nearly a decade, rarely taking a holiday. The immense emotional burden the character carries is gradually well developed by Rea. 

In one sequence, we could hear the sound of electrichka train, while Burakov goes through the same routine to hunt down the killer, yielding no results and unearthing more bodies. This was one of few well-staged scenes (the other memorable one was introduction of Chikatilo through the shot of a passing train) to showcase the grinding nature of the job. Electrichka are electrical passenger trains which mostly ran through Soviet suburban and rural units. Andrei Chikatilo eyed young, lonely runaways, loiters and workers to just sit and speak with them. Eventually, he lured them to nearby woods. The killing scenes are mostly filled with top angle shots of killer stabbing or close-up shot of stabbed person’s face. It’s a bit dramatic for today’s standards and this never achieves the hard-hitting effect created in Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (about an unsolved serial killing case in the totalitarian Korea). 

Citizen X makes a compelling crime/drama by chronicling the search for the monster and also by exposing the inefficient bureaucracy of Soviet Union. The film succeeds little better in depicting hunt for the murderer. There’s lack of complexity in the inquiry of inept bureaucracy. It personifies evil within the system through two-dimensional angry-faced high official Bondarchuk. But still we got to remember that it’s a 100 minute film trying to deftly maneuver between sea of real-life details. For better understanding about the case, there are various other intricate articles and books. Tom Rob Smith’s recent novel Child 44 was partly based on Chikatilo case. In the novel, the killings are shifted to the dreadful period after Stalin’s death. The speculation that Chikatilo’s brother was kidnapped and cannibalized (during the worst famine in Ukraine) was used as a starting point for the novel. The novel took a good look at the menace of Stalinism, although it followed many conventions of a Hollywood movie (it had a very dull movie adaptation). Compared to Child 44, Citizen X is a far better serial killer thriller. It’s also doubles up as an engaging examination of a man’s steely determination to conquer the evil. 



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