Three years ago (where has the time gone?) I reviewed a pretty great movie called Child 44, with Tom Hardy as a Soviet investigator in pursuit of a murderer, based on the most prolific serial killer of the Soviet Union (excluding Stalin), Andre Chikatilo. Yes, pretty great, but it had some problems; from the point of view of this blog, it barely mentioned cannibalism. The murderer was “just” a psychopathic sadist. It also changed all the names and dates, presumably to protect the guilty.
But ten years earlier, today’s film Citizen X was made as an HBO television movie, based on Robert Cullen’s non-fiction book The Killer Department. This is a much more accurate rendering of the career of Andrei Chikatilo, the “Rostov Ripper”, who was eventually convicted of 52 murders, although he confessed to several more.
Chikatilo was able to continue killing for seventeen years, from 1978 to 1995, due to a combination of general ineptitude, official denial of the possibility of such a thing as a Soviet serial killer (they considered it a bourgeois American crime, inconceivable in the workers’ paradise), and luck (apparently his semen was found to have a different grouping to his blood). The authorities preferred to round up the Rostov homosexual community because of some absurd reasoning that homosexuals are also paedophiles, and some of the victims had been boys, which resulted in some gay men committing suicide in custody.
Chikatilo claimed that his mother had told him that his older brother had been kidnapped and cannibalised by starving neighbours when he was little. This may have been her way of trying to scare him into behaving, but he had been born in Ukraine at the time of the Holodomor, when Stalin was busy starving millions of people to death as part of the process of Collectivisation, so could well have been true. Chikatilo was a self-confessed cannibal, stating that he gained sexual satisfaction from torturing his victims, and would sometimes drink their blood and eat their genitals, nipples and tongues.
This film is presented as a true-crime documentary. The viewer knows very early who the killer is – Chikatilo, a loser driven insane by rejection and humiliation at work and in bed.
Chikatilo is played with nerdish rage by Jeffrey DeMunn, who we know now as Charles Rhoades, Sr. in Billions; no wonder he captures a psychopath perfectly. The rest of the cast is just as impressive – the forensic cop is played with tightened jaw and occasional tears by Stephen Rea (The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire), his wife is played by the iconic actress Imelda Staunton, and his boss, Colonel Fetisov, is the wonderful Donald Sutherland, looking uncomfortable in a Soviet army uniform yet getting away with it due to his devilish grin.
The psychiatrist who helps them crack the case is played by the doyen of cinema Max von Sydow, who played chess with Death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, played Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told and even got an Emmy nomination for his role in Game of Thrones. With a cast like that, what could go wrong?
Roger Ebert nominated Citizen X as his example of a movie that totally immerses the viewer in a believable reality:
“We experience the hopelessness, self-loathing, fear, and bleak reality displayed by most of the characters, regardless of station, age, self-discipline, or level of humanity.”
Chikatilo, the very image of the alienated outsider, preys on society’s lost and abandoned, befriending them (like Fritz Haarmann in Germany in the 1920s) and then luring them to their death.
The story shows a lot of murders, children falling backwards, blood dribbling from their mouths, knife plunged into their defenceless breasts.
We see graphic scenes of their post mortem examinations after the bodies are eventually found.
But that’s not really what the film is about – it takes us into the stultifying atmosphere of a grey bureaucracy in which truth is determined not by facts but by favouritism, prejudice and nepotism. In that sense, it is a fascinating portrait of the closing years of the Soviet Union, but it also jolts us into the realisation that we have all been there, a system where, in order to make any progress, you have to play along with the idiots in charge. A world where who you know is more important than what you do, a frustration that is felt universally. It is really a psychological thriller more than a murder procedural. The militsia make little progress, stymied by the bureaucracy, the unwillingness to admit to the fact that a serial killer could inhabit the workers’ paradise, by the apparent blunder in typing Chikatilo’s blood and semen, and by the insistence that the hectoring interrogation is the only way to succeed in getting the truth.
Ultimately, it is the psychiatrist, reading his paper, in which he had earlier tried to profile the killer, that makes Chikatilo confess, recognising that someone has finally understood the torments churning inside him.
The story is not about Chikatilo’s hunger for flesh, but his appetite for compliant sex, for a partners unable to resist his sexual appetite, because they are dead or squirming in agony. Children were ideal objects for his cravings, particularly young ones who were lost, homeless or runaways.
“Citizen X has probably had a tendency towards isolation since childhood. His internal world, filled with fantasy, is closed to those around him, even those close to him. The adolescence of such a person is, as a rule, painful, because he is often subjected to the laughter of his peers, at a time when success among them is the subject of his secret dreams. His sexuality is not noticeable to those around him, however it is an external asexuality that frequently coincides with steady masturbation and wild erotic fantasies. He is painfully sensitive in company, incapable of flirting and courtship, however it cannot be excluded that he has fathered a family.
There is reason to think that Citizen X has a weakness of sexual potency.… He sits or squats astride his victim. The orgasm and ejaculation most likely occur at this stage of the act and in this position, sitting on the victim in the period of her agony…. You ejaculated while stabbing them.”
The film scored an 86% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The director, Chris Gerolmo, also wrote the screenplay, which earned him an Emmy nomination, a Writers Guild of America Award, and an Edgar Award. It’s an absorbing film, the acting is great (although the fake Russian accents don’t really convince anyone), but I still have an issue. Chikatilo is known for being the most prolific serial killer in the Soviet Union. But he is most notorious for being a cannibal, and that is barely mentioned.
What is it about cannibalism that makes it so comprehensively abject that a film about a serial killer who admitted to murdering over 53 people, 35 of them children, cannot bring itself to mention his regular feasting on the bodies? Evidence aplenty spoke of the mutilation of the victims, particularly their eyes and sexual organs, and Chikatilo admitted in court that he had eaten the sexual organs. Yet the film, like the later Child 44, skipped over this aspect except for one brief glimpse.
Freud wrote that the two primary taboos of humanity are incest and cannibalism. It seems that his words are still accurate. We routinely see murder in films and television series – but it happens to someone else, and our attention is usually on the authority figure solving the crime. Cannibalism though is different – it opens up the human body and shows that we are made of meat, just like the animals we so carelessly torment and kill by the billions. Unlike the sometimes shocking, sometimes light-hearted killing of other people, cannibalism shows us what is inside us. It shows us our own mortality.