QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM TALLINN
Young, strong and handsome Fyodor Volkonogov (Yiuri Borisov) works as an executioner for Stalin’s much feared People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (known by the Russian acronym NKVD) in Leningrad. The year is 1938, and with international tensions rising, so do mistrust and fear amongst ordinary Russians. Traitors are routinely denounced, promptly court-martialed and executed. “Terrorists”, “saboteurs”, “anti-Soviet propangadists” and “spies” are enemies of the Motherland, and their existence must not be tolerated. Even harbouring a defector was deemed a crime punishable with death.
One day Volkonogov finds out that the people that he executes are in fact innocent. They have not betrayed the regime. Instead, they confessed under “special methods of interrogation” (an euphemism for torture). These methods include chocking, crunching bones and repeatedly jumping on top of the victims. The tactics are extremely successful, with the hapless men and women soon confessing to their “crimes”. Not even the fascists were so effective, notes the father of one of the victims.
These executions were preventative. The only “crime” that these people had committed was a very remote, involuntary association with the enemy, such as German and Polish blood, or a friend who fled the country. The NKVD wished to stop potential traitors before they could even think of double-crossing the nation. This is the pinnacle of perversion. Corruption, brutality and the subversion of justice were the modus operandi of Stalin’s agency.
The revelation triggers Volkonogov to desert the NKVD, taking with him the files of the innocent people wrongly executed. He seeks their surviving relatives (a father, a daughter, a husband and even a child), revealing the truth and begging for their absolution. Some suspect that the gesture might be a clever ruse, and refuse to believe Volkonogov. Others tell him to “fuck off”, and resort to violence. The charming officer is mostly unmoved by the feelings and reactions. There is no sense of compassion and solidarity. Instead he is obsessed with salvation: he wants to go to heaven. Demanding forgiveness is an authoritarian act of selfishness. It legitimises complacence and turns an executioner into a self-serving hero.
The recreation of Saint Petersburg in the 1930s (then Leningrad) is very convincing. This is a mainstream film with a large budget, partly financed by the Russian Ministry of Culture (in an extraordinarily rare moment of historical evaluation), with additional funds coming from the Venice Gap-Financing Market Projects, France and Estonia. Estonian cinematographer Mart Taniel crafts a compelling visual narrative, successfully transporting audiences eight decades back in time. The derelict yellow buildings and the broad, sparsely populated streets of Russia’s second city provide a chilling backdrop to this imaginative fable.
Sadly the same cannot be said about the script, penned by the two directors. The dialogues are constrained, and the actors sound disengaged. Ultimately, the performances are as contrived as Volkonogov’s quest for salvation, and Russian government’s unusual gesture of self-criticism. As a result, Captain Volkonogov Escaped often feels cold and dispassionate. It fails to move viewers.
Captain Volkonogov Escaped just showed as part of the Official Selection of the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. The film is showing out-of-competition because it premiered earlier this year in Venice.