Captain Volkonogov Escaped
This film from Russian writer and director duo Natalya Merkulova and Alexey Chupov is described as thriller/drama. In reality, it is more of a horror film. This is as dark as cinema gets – all the more disturbing because it really happened. Not this exact story, but the mass psychosis that stole the lives and humanity of millions of Russians.
The film opens with Captain Volkonogov (Yuriy Borisov) and his comrades playing volleyball with a violently heavy ball (even games hurt here), which gets stuck in the grand chandelier of the sumptuous bourgeois building that has been commandeered for the cause. The cinematography (by Mart Taniel) and period details are astounding throughout.
As the captain goes to work the following day, he is inadvertently caught up in the suicide of a superior, crashing skull first on the entrance steps behind him. Volkonogov senses he is in trouble as he sees his comrades taken in for questioning. On the pretence of getting some juice, he legs it, the powers that be hot on his tail. His red uniform commands respect in the city. He soon changes out of it.
As he hides out with homeless men, he is forced to help bury all the corpses the regime has created. A horrifying shot shows him on a tram, a pile of what were once people at the back. The commander of this operation tells the him, “Don’t just throw them all in, they won’t fit”. There is a learned art to arranging corpses in this regime. Doing this, he comes face to face with his best friend, “Kiddo” Veretennikov (Nikita Kukushkin), who has been tortured and murdered. While the captain stands by the mass grave in grief, Veretennikov grapples out the soil to warn him that he is now in hell, all the Soviets are, and he must find one person to forgive him in order to redeem his soul.
The film unflinchingly shows the brutality of the regime. The city still looks beautiful, long shots lingering on the propaganda painted on its buildings, its grandeur now hollowed out and haunted, like the once-striking faces of the Russians, blasted by suffering. It shows the complete, inexplicable waste of human life, people divested of their lives and dignity, no humanity or scruples left.
The action is slotted with flashbacks: the in-house executioner at their base, looking like a less forgiving Dracula, gives a presentation to Volkonogov and his comrades in training. “What is your daily output” he is asked. “Last year 40, this year 20 to 25,” he replies modestly.
The image of the blood on the straw in the torture chamber is the most haunting. Volkonogov describes the “special methods” used to the various relatives he accosts for forgiveness, including a doctor who lives in a morgue and a man whose wife was executed for repeating his joke about a camel in the market. The understated euphemisms only serve to accentuate the horror. Also striking is a flashback to the regiment singing folk songs, Veretennikov delivering a solo in his beautiful tenor, before others begin the traditional squat dance. It is an oasis of pure, bleak beauty amongst the carnage.
A theme through the film is the impending arrival of the zeppelin/dirigible/aerostat. It arrives in another visually arresting scene, its red belly brushing the roofs of Moscow, 1938 emblazoned on its side in Soviet type set, as if the year itself is sinking and crashing.
Borisov is excellent as Volkonogov, giving his all to the demanding role, the camera loving his beautiful, tortured face as the architecture of his life and beliefs crumble around him.
Captain Volkonogov Escaped is a highly accomplished piece of work, from the script to the acting to the visuals, but so harrowing and horrific. Cinema is not always about entertainment, but this is a two-hour endurance test. It is more uncompromising than what most Western audiences are used to, and perhaps too much. Approach with extreme caution.
Captain Volkonogov Escaped does not have a UK release date yet.
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