Written and Directed by Chris Gerolmo
– Stephen Rea as Lt. Viktor Burakov
– Donald Sutherland as Col. Mikhail Fetisov
– Max von Sydow as Dr. Alexandr Bukhanovsky
– Jeffrey DeMunn as Andrei Chikatilo
– Joss Ackland as Bondarchuk
It might give some pause that I find a film about a serial killer who not only murdered 53 people–well more than half of them under the age of seventeen–but who jerked off while stabbing them and then ate their genitals, a rare work of art that renews and invigorates my faith in mankind. Admittedly, the above sentence was written–not only because it is true–but to grab hold your attention. Citizen X, a film by the sadly unprolific Chris Gerolmo (Mississippi Burning), is an out and out masterpiece. Surely one of the least known and underappreciated gems to ever come from Tinseltown. Every once in a while, HBO produces a film that not only merits theatrical release, but one that is moving, insightful and stands the test of time. Ostensibly, Citizen X is about a serial killer terrorizing a city and the one man who won’t stop until the murderer is caught. But under the surface of the “based on a true story,” we find a much larger work; one that helps us to understand our own reality, our own time.
Beginning in 1982 in the latter depths of Soviet dementia , Lt. Viktor Burakov (Stephan Rea) begins tracking the victims of Russia’s most prolific serial killer, one Andrei Chikatilo. As I find serial murderers macabre and rather sick, I can’t say exactly where Chikatilo fits into the world’s pantheon of depraved assholes, but his body count alone–not to mention his heinous methods–surely rank him somewhere near the top. Probably just a rung or two below Joseph McCarthy. In truth, the murders are the least important parts of the film. In charge of Lt. Burakov is Col. Festiov (Sutherland), a career military politician who has long ago stopped caring about anything. A “good” man to be sure, but one who is so totally caught up in the bullshit of his surroundings that most traces of humanity have fallen by the way side. Supervising Festiov, is the most decadent politburo ever captured on film. Chief among the commie stooges is Bondarchuk (portrayed masterfully by the great Joss Ackland), the kind of man whose very existence alone justified the Cold War. When given the initial report that there is a serial killer currently haunting the children of Russia, Bondarchuk snaps, “The Soviet Union doesn’t have serial killers! It is a decadent, western phenomenon.”
At every step of the way, Burakov’s–and to a lesser extend, Festiov’s–competence is challenged, his methods questioned. He is repeatedly denied what he so desperately needs, namely;
- Information exchange with the FBI
- Most importantly, publicity, so that parents might warn their children not to talk to strangers at train stations, Chikatilo’s preferred place of selection.
To help in any real way, would be to admit that the Soviet system is flawed. That it is not just the West who has this sort of problem. Obviously, in a closed society like the U.S.S.R., that is a fundamental no-no. Traces of this type of thinking can still be seen in “modern” day Russia. The sinking of the Kursk is the most obvious example, where Putin refused all foreign assistance and the word on the Russian street was that the Kursk collided with an American “spy sub,” rather than the truth (the truth being that Russia’s highly incompetent and sadly, almost criminally under-funded navy is solely to blame). In fact, when a Dutch team was finally allowed to raise the Kursk, months after every sailor aboard was long dead, they could do so only on the condition that they first removed the bow of the ship so as the proof of the accidental torpedo explosion will remain forever buried. And of course the shocking terrorist massacre/debacle in Belsam–where once again the Kremlim refused outside help–and the subsequent Soviet Re-Union that followed is just further proof of what happens when governments let dogma and protocol push facts and reason aside.
Remarkably, what Citizen X showcases most clearly, is that even in the face of massive stifling and nonsensical interference, a driven man can and will, through diligence, rigor and exhausting work, achieve the truth. Burakov and his men are forced to embark on a near-decade long roundup of homosexuals and doctors (code word in Russia for “Jews”), even though the Lieutenant repeatedly presents compelling evidence to the committee that the killer is a man who stalks children at train stations, not a “gang of retarded gypsies.” Most shocking and depressing of all, is the fact that Burakov actually apprehends Chikatilo! He catches the maniac red handed, so to speak, at a train station with a knife and rope in his bag talking up a child. However, Bondarchuk orders Burakov to let “Comrade Chikatilo” go, as it turns out the suspect is a Communist party member. While the film never explicitly states it, a blood test is forged, clearing Chikatilo of the crimes. Burakov can only soldier on.
The film crosses the line from simply good, to absolutely fantastic when it gets to 1990 and Gorbachev begins introducing both economic and social reforms. Suddenly, with the wall down, Festiov, now a general, can stop all the bullshit and dedicate real resources to catching the killer. In the film’s finest scene, Festiov relates a telephone conversation he had the night before with the FBI Director in charge of serial murders to Burakov. Turns out that the FBI has been following Burakov and the case for the past five years. Moreover, the FBI director feels that Burakov is the one person he would not want after him, so highly are the Russians methods regarded. Furthermore, and most stunning, is the fact that every class of new FBI recruits gets initiated into the world of serial killer-catching via a lecture on Burakov and his relentless pursuit of Citizen X. Again, it is a wonderful scene that reaffirms one’s sense that in the end, reason rules the day, not superstition and bureaucratic backwards ideology, nay, horseshit.
And that is why–to me–Citizen X is one of the most inspiring and uplifting films ever made. It clearly documents how man’s capacity for what is right, will always triumph over the most oft-repeated political mantras. In this country, while nowhere near the depths of depravity and fundamental awfulness of the monster that was Soviet Russia, we are headed towards a dark future. Take, just for one instance, the promise and potential of stem cell research, a budding field that all scientists (all scientists worth a squirt of piss, anyway) feel will revolutionize medicine and well being as we know it. As you all know, the group of thugs currently in power rejects the scientific facts, rejects what any thinking person understands, in the name of whatever the hell it is they think they believe in (Jesus? Oil?). Now of course, you can (and should) be depressed about the current state of affairs. But, as in Citizen X when Burakov tells Festiov that because of the roadblocks placed in front of him by the committee, “people will die,” and Festiov replies that yes, “people will die,” there is the glimmer of hope always present that in the end the bastards will lose and the righteous will inevitably rise. As in all of human history, just be sure to close your eyes as you hurdle over the pile of bodies while crossing the finish line.