An HBO made for TV movie from 1995, “Citizen X” offers a fascinating glimpse behind the crumbling Iron Curtain of the 1980s, into a society where political corruption and ideological hubris led to the deaths of dozens of young men and women at the hands of the Soviet Union’s first identified serial killer.
When a body is discovered on a collective farm during the 1982 harvest, a subsequent search of adjacent woods at the request of new forensic specialist Viktor Burakov (Stephen Frears) uncovers seven more bodies in varying stages of decomposition. Aided covertly by his commanding officer, Colonel Mikhail Fetisov (Donald Sutherland), Burakov must battle politically motivated interference and bureaucratic incompetence to track down the killer.
It’s a fascinating tale, bolstered by fine performances from Frears and Sutherland and a supporting cast that boasts Joss Ackland, Imelda Staunton and Max Von Sydow. It’s a little bit squeamish when it comes to the grislier aspects of its subject matter, a by-product of its TV roots but the script, although prone to Soviet cliché, manages to convey the desperation and tension of the hunt for the killer and the oppressive regime which sought to stifle the investigation for fear of losing face.
Unfortunately, despite the quality of the cast and the script, the direction (by writer/ director Chris Gerolmo) and cinematography are appalling. The camera is static and haphazardly aimed, framing shots in an almost arbitrary manner. The interior scenes are lit flatly and overbright, making everything look cheap and while there are the odd touches of visual cleverness is conveying the passge of time (the framed picture of the Soviet leader cycles through the various incumbents of the 1980s), they’re undermined by silly continuity errors such as Burakov’s children not aging despite the passage of almost a decade.
But despite these poor production values, this is still a worthy and gripping tale, a truer account of the real-life events than the more recent “Child 44” which incorporates them into an unfocused and dreary fictionalised thriller.