The attires worn by the young men that conform the USSR’s National Security Service (NKVD) in the extraordinary Russian thriller “Captain Volkonogov Escaped,” from directors Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov, don’t abide by historical accuracy. And that’s a positive.
Dressed in piercing red tracksuits, an anachronistic look with great cinematic value, it’s easy to identify them. Their uniforms stand out from among the tattered gray clothing of the rest of the population. They are undoubtedly special, above the law, so long as they don’t become themselves suspects of any doubt about the heinous crimes they are committing in the name of their homeland. State-sanctioned murderers granted impunity.
To purposefully liberate themselves from the chains of period piece nitpicking, the filmmaking duo set their devastating tale in an unnamed city, which one can recognize as St. Petersburg but is never referred to as such, in 1938, the tail end of Stalin’s Great Purge where hundreds of thousands died under a reign of terror. It’s in that context of heightened paranoia and loyalty to the party above all else that Captain Fyodor Volkonogov (Yuriy Borisov), sporting a shaved head and an imposing square jaw, gained torture acumen.
But his respected stature among fellow law enforcers—in charge of either carrying out dehumanizing streamlined executions or applying horrifying interrogations methods to get a confession out of people they know haven’t done any of the things they are accused of—is compromised when fear creeps in. A suicide and the looming possibility of being incriminated prompt him to run away, sealing his fate as a traitor in the eyes of his superior, Major Golovnya (Timofey Tribuntsev).
And so an intense cat-and-mouse chase begins that calls to mind “Catch If Me You Can” by way of a dark Soviet take on “A Christmas Carol” laced with minimal doses of the brutally absurdist humor in “The Death of Stalin.” As masterfully engrossing as it’s philosophically intricate, the film transitions from the tale of an anti-hero pursuing self-preservation to his, first reluctant, acceptance of personal responsibility in the face of institutionalized evil.
Handled by Estonian cinematographer Mart Taniel (who shot the stunning dark fantasy “November”), the fast-paced hunt for the defector unfurl with a great sense of place. Sequences that see the protagonist dashing through the streets consider the town’s infrastructure, with public transportation, specifically the tram that traverses it, being a key setting.
And as the captain proceeds into impoverished neighborhoods, the combination of the work by production designer, Sergey Fevralev, and the head of the costume department, Nadezhda Vasileva, an opaque picture of societal decay. Early in his search, Volkonogov walks through a hidden urban lair where a mural of a face cleverly painted on two levels observes his every step, reinforcing the team’s keen eye for the unification of craft and theme within every shot—sometimes more overtly as in this instance.
Although Borisov initially projects emotionlessness as Captain Volkonogov, a blank face difficult to read, his cold demeanor is not unnerving or psychopathic. Feeling remorse seems plausible for him. Beneath his neutral attitude toward the perverse acts he is instructed to carry out, a remnant of critical thinking, of quizzical self-questioning might exist. But it’s only when, in his desperate defection, the directors brilliantly introduce magical realist elements from beyond the grave that his mission changes.
A visiting specter explains if Volkonogov doesn’t convince one of his victims’ family members to forgive him for killing them, hell awaits him. Selfishly seeking absolution, he embarks on a quest to meet them and apologize, as if he were an addict making amends. There are no assurances that there’s a heaven, but in accepting that he will be executed when caught, surviving is no longer in the cards, only the chance to not rot in the pits of the abyss for all the pain he caused.
Merkulova and Chupov don’t ask the audience to root for a perpetrator of such vile offenses but test his commitment to confront the human wreckage he’s participated in, even if unwillingly. Every interaction between him and the loved ones of those innocents, he enacted unspeakable violence on teems with their impotence and shock (the standard practice was encouraging them to believe their family members were imprisoned but alive). Even as he relays the news, he appears not fully conscious of how his demands for forgiveness, offering bare minimum repentance, are in themselves violent.
“No one will forgive you,” a child tells Volkonogov with searing condemnation. In those words, there’s a deadly sentence. Political without spelling out facts or naming specific historical figures, the film deploys Major Golovnya, a villain among villains, as a malevolent force of repression that sees in the captain’s desire for atonement as defeat. Tribuntsev plays the Major with despicable determination, relentless even when coughing up blood. A flashback of him rationalization the mass murder of civilians as a preemptive measure before they engage in treasonous acts stands as a bone-chilling reminder that moral good doesn’t often align with the rule of law.
Merkulova and Chupov don’t bother drafting a backstory that justifies how the captain or his comrades became who they are but includes glimpses of an untainted brotherhood. The feature opens with a volleyball match and later shows a rehearsal of a choir and dance performance demonstrating how the fraternal bond as anchor for sanity amid their barbarically gruesome tasks. Another memory shows “Kiddo” Veretennikov (Nikita Kukushkin), the protagonist’s best friend and talented singer, crying inconsolably at the realization of what his position entails. In those moments a semblance of humanity envelops the manufactured monsters.
For Volkonogov, an inescapable judge awaits, whether divine or earthly and only in the sincere compassion for another that the vindication he is after might exist. Merkulova and Chupov don’t capture their elaborately ambiguous thesis on good and evil via dialogue but in a riveting and ferocious pilgrimage that culminates on a savagely spiritual note. [A]