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Film: Citizen X
"To be a psychiatrist in this country is to be an expert on paranoia... whether you meant to be or not."
Bukhanovsky, a psychiatrist in Russia

"There are no serial killers in the Soviet state. It is a decadent Western phenomenon."
Bondarchuk, secretary of ideology for Rostov-on-Don

Citizen X is a 1995 HBO TV movie about the investigation of one of the most prolific serial murderers in history. The decade-long investigation happened in the final years of the Soviet Union, sometimes against the forces of the Communist Party. Although the film has dramatized some parts of the story, it still gives a good insight into the workings of a dying empire, and it's a good crime story with great performances.

The central character is Viktor Burakov (Stephen Rea), a forensic scientist promoted haphazardly to lead investigator on the trail of a serial killer dubbed The Rostov Ripper, who Burakov begins to suspect is factory worker and party member Andrei Chikatilo (Jeffrey DeMunn). The committee heading the investigation is composed of yes-men and politicos who do nothing but hinder Burakov's investigation. His only ally is Colonel Fetisov (Donald Sutherland), who, while sympathetic to Burakov's pleas and frustrated at the committee's incompetence, nevertheless has his hands tied because of politics. Burakov is later also assisted by Dr. Alexandr Bukhanovsky (Max von Sydow), a psychologist who creates a scientific profile of The Rostov Ripper. The movie follows Burakov's determined pursuit of the Ripper, showing both his frustration at his own people's indifference toward the case and the toll it takes on him.

This film is based on a well-known real-life case and so there are unmarked spoilers below. You've been warned!

Tropes used:

  • Antagonist Title: Citizen X is the name Bukhanovsky gives to the unknown subject of his profile.
  • Artistic License - History: The prison officers are wearing communist uniforms, but the trial took place after The Great Politics Mess-Up.
  • Based on a True Story: Chikatilo was one of the few killers to start killing in his late 40s. And, yes, communist ideology (particularly in view of the fact that Chikatilo was a member of the Communist Party) did make the investigation harder.
  • Break Them by Talking: Bukhanovsky does this to Chikatilo, in the more quiet (and nervous) way possible.
  • The Cynic: Burakov initially believes Fetisov to be one of these, but he soon realises that Fetisov is actually The Stoic, and by the end Fetisov is very much Not So Stoic.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Initially, Fetisov (before he gets emotionally invested).
    • Burakov learns how to be one:
      Fetisov: Goddamn it! What is happening to me? My heart is pounding, my collar feels tight; what the hell is this?
      Burakov: Passion.
    • Burakov is one-upped by Buchanovsky in one memorable exchange:
      Burakov: [while Fetisov silently shakes the doctor's hand] He'd say something witty but he's overcome with emotion right now.
      Bukhanovsky: Thank you both, and may I say that, together, you make a wonderful person.
  • Determinator: Burakov comes to be considered one in-universe, by the head of the FBI's Serial Crimes Task Force. With good cause: it takes a decade of determined but poorly-resourced and under-manned investigation and the impending Fall of the frickin' Soviet Union before Burakov finally gets the resources he needs to catch the killer. The Other Wiki confirms that this was Truth in Television.
    Fetisov: "He said he begins every new incoming class of investigators about this case, and about you. And he told me that you are the one detective who he would never like to be after him, because you would never stop, and never give up, until you had caught him. I concur."
  • Dirty Communists: If the party hadn't been so ideologically blinkered as to deny that there could possibly be a serial killer loose in the Soviet Union, they might have given the investigation proper resources and Chikatilo could have been arrested a lot sooner.
  • Driven to Suicide: The young homosexual man who had been falsely arrested on the erroneous belief that the killer had to have been homosexual.
  • Eye Remember: In a rare occasion of this trope not entailing the use of Applied Phlebotinum, it turns out to be crucial to catching the killer. Bukhanovsky had guessed that the killer might believe in this, and it turns out to be true when Chikatilo breaks down while Bukhanovsky is telling him what he's like.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: This happens almost by accident. The high-powered Moscow interrogator yells at Chikatilo and threatens him, but Chikatilo just looks scared and confused and keeps insisting that he's innocent. Then polite, affable, soft-spoken Bukhanovsky takes his place and starts reading to Chikatilo his speculative description of how the killer's mind works. This causes Chikatilo's Villainous Breakdown.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: For a film about a violent serial killer it's remarkably gore-free. The most notable example is the final death of the film, which takes place in complete darkness.
  • Henpecked Husband: Chikatilo, whose wife thinks he's just a pathetic loser.
  • Heroic BSOD: Burakov suffers one early in the film, when he is confronted by Bondarchuk regarding some statements he had made about how he would rather find bodies of the serial killer's victims than not—meaning that he would rather have a possible lead to the killer than none at all. Bondarchuk asks him if he really wants to see more people be killed, which causes Burakov to break down. Bondarchuk is unsympathetic.
    Bondarchuk: (witnessing Burakov's breakdown) Is this man crying? Is the man to whom we have entrusted the safety of our children crying?
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Bondarchuk, the petard in question being his determination to persecute homosexuals. If he hadn't been so determined about it, Fetisov wouldn't have got suspicious and made a few inquiries about Bondarchuk's own private life...
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Chikatilo partially cannibalized his victims, because in Soviet Union, serial eats you.
  • Ironic Echo: "He may be stupid, but he is in charge." Early on, Fetisov to Burakov, who's just nearly blown his stack at the Committee over their obstructive stance. Later on, Burakov to Fetisov, who (letting his increasing emotional investment in the case run away with him) has just ripped into the prosecutor from Moscow after an unproductive interrogation session.
  • Let's Get Dangerous: For most of the investigation, Fetisov is playing back-room politics, trying to wheedle and cajole support for Burakov, or at least prevent the worst of the Committee's interference. Then the perestroika initiatives come down from Moscow, and suddenly Fetisov is The Man In Charge:
    Fetisov: I'm now the Prefect of Militia for the entire oblast, reporting only to Moscow. I can allocate resources any way I see fit, and I am considering this case my highest priority. You need men, you need publicity, you need communications? You have it.
  • Made-for-TV Movie
  • Man Bites Man: Chikatilo savages his victims with his teeth.
  • Manly Tears: Burakov has a few of these, notably when Fetisov gives him complete control of the investigation and tells him that the FBI, whom Burakov had been wanting to consult for advice, actually regard Burakov as a hero.
  • Mistaken for Evidence: Played with. Burakov arrests Chikatilo and thinks that he finally has him, pending the results of a blood-semen test. But the blood test shows that the semen and Chikatilo's blood are different types, so Chikatilo goes free, much to Burakov's frustration. Later, the head of Soviet forensics claims that Chikatilo possesses a rare genetic trait that make his semen and blood different types, but nobody else believes her. Given the level of bureaucratic incompetence in the film, the most likely explanation is that the lab messed up the test.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Played for laughs when Fetisov catches on to Burakov's "catch more flies with honey" ploy— something that Fetisov had suggested earlier in the film.
    Fetisov: ...Did you just come in here and go out of your way to make me feel good; then ask me for something? My God, are you learning how to manipulate people? I've created a monster.
    • Played straight elsewhere: after finding one of the last victims, one of the undercover policemen starts banging his head against a tree in frustration, having unknowingly let Chikatilo go earlier. It turns out not to be simple survivor's guilt, in that the victim was his cousin's daughter.
  • Police Are Useless: Played straight for the first fifteen minutes, then gradually inverted over the course of the movie. The cops under Burakov start out as cynical, lazy and incompetent but Burakov's example inspires them to take the investigation seriously. By the end, they've all become Big Damn Heroes.
    Fetisov: (to Federenko, Burakov's second in command, while watching Burakov examine a crime scene) "Tell me honestly, what do you think of him?"
    Federenko: (about Burakov, after a very long, very soul-searching pause) "I think he is the greatest detective I have ever seen."
  • Police Brutality Gambit: It fails miserably.
  • Pre-Mortem One-Liner: One of the most beige and impersonal in movie history: "Please, don't turn around."
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right: Burakov refuses to let Party politics stop him from his investigation, and Fetisov blackmails a high ranking Party officer to allow Burakov to continue his investigation.
  • Serial Killer
  • Take That: To communism, or at least how communist Russia was run during the time of the case.
  • Undying Loyalty: Fetisov to Burakov, to the latter's initial skepticism but eventual gratitude.
  • Wham Line: "Did he have a bag?"
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Burakov starts out as one of these, but the sheer number of killings and the obstructive policies of the party turn him slowly into a Knight in Sour Armor.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Chikatilo. Despite his appalling crimes he's portrayed as so pathetic, wretched and put-upon that he qualifies as this, as well as a Jerkass Woobie (in the film, anyway; the real-life Chikatilo seems to have been a good deal more Obliviously Evil).
  • Would Hurt a Child: The majority of Chikatilo's victims-35 out of 52-were children under the age of 17.
  • You Are What You Hate: Bondarchuk. He orders all gay men to be investigated as suspects in the killings, even though he's having an affair with a teenage boy.
  • You Are in Command Now: Burakov becomes the chief investigator by default, because nobody else wants to handle the case. Later on, when the Soviet Union is crumbling and the Communist party has lost authority, he gets put in charge of the investigation committee because of his outright determination and competence.

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alternative title(s): Citizen X
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