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Film / Citizen X

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You don't want to know what he does... You just want to know when he's caught.

"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

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.

Citizen X is one of only two made-for-television films that Siskel & Ebert ever reviewed, the other being The Good Old Boys.

See also Evilenko, a much less faithful movie based on Andrei Chikatilo.

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

Tropes used:

  • All Gays Are Pedophiles: Subverted. Burakov is ordered to bring "known homosexuals" in for investigation due to the committee's belief that, because many of the victims of the killer's sexual torture and murder are young boys, the killer must be homosexual. He isn't— at the end of the film Bukhanovsky posits the possibility that Chikatilo is actually asexual, with the rapes just being a method of achieving power over the victim. It seems born out by the fact that he's impotent otherwise.
  • All Psychology Is Freudian: Or All Psychologists Look Like Freud at least, and Max Von Sydow's Bukhanovsky more than any of them. This contrasts with the real Bukhanovsky who was a younger, clean-shaved, portly guy at the time this happened.
  • Antagonist Title: Citizen X is the name Bukhanovsky gives to the unknown subject of his Rostov Ripper profile.
  • Artistic License – History: The prison officers are wearing Soviet uniforms, but the trial took place immediately after the establishment of The New Russia.
  • 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.
  • Bedlam House: Averted. Burakov's continuous years-long investigation into a serial killer takes a mental toll on him and he briefly spends time as an inpatient. What we see of the facility is him meeting his family in a large room that looks just like the lounge or cafeteria of your average hospital.
  • Berserk Button: A young prostitute laughs at Chikatilo's pathetic and unsuccessful attempt to have sex with her. After her body is later found, one of the investigators remarks that she must have done something to make him angry, given the extremely violent way in which he murdered her.
  • Big Bad: Andrei Chikatilo, the Serial Killer stalking Rostov.
  • Break Them by Talking: Bukhanovsky does this to Chikatilo in the most quiet (and nervous) way possible.
  • Crapsack World: The Soviet Union is a bureaucratic nightmare where the vast majority of people are poor regardless of what they do and the government will deliberately cover up a Serial Killer to maintain the party line.
  • The Cynic: Burakov initially believes Fetisov to be one of these, but he soon realizes 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.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Chikatilo was known to sexual harass both female and male students during his time as a professor, resulting in getting fired. As a killer, he targets both girls and boys.
  • 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.
  • Ephebophile: Bondarchuk, who appears to be in his 50's or even his 60's, is fooling around with a 19-year old boy. Depending on how long it's been going on, he may have been even younger when it started, making him a complete Hypocrite regarding both homosexuality and the safety of children.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Bukhanovsky's introduction. After every single psychiatrist leaves the room upon Fetisov and Borakov's plea for volunteers to help catch the killer, Bukhanovsky is seen tying his shoes outside. He stands up to greet the two men and almost languidly delivers this line:
    Bukhanovsky: It is a shame to see grown men run from their responsibilities. It is like seeing your parents drunk for the first time.
  • 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.
  • The Film of the Book: Adaptation of The Killer Department by Robert Cullen.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: Chikatilo, whose crimes elevate him from a nobody to Russia's most infamous serial killer. In fact, it's his status as a put-upon, henpecked factory worker that inspires his murders, which are a way for him to feel powerful.
  • Full-Name Ultimatum: The time Bondarchuk treats Burakov the worst is when he screams his full name. It's more impactful because the movie largely relies on Last-Name Basis, even in the credits.
  • Good All Along: Burakov eventually realizes his boss, Colonel Fetisov, is actually this.
  • 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.
  • Head-in-the-Sand Management: Near the beginning of the investigation Fetisov asks the committee for additional resources, public announcements warning about the killer, and communications with serial killer specialists in the United States. The committee, especially Bondarchuk, refuses this all with the justification that they will not admit in public that the Soviet society is capable of producing serial killers nor are they willing to admit they need help from Americans.
    Bondarchuk: There are no serial killers in the Soviet state. It is a decadent, Western phenomenon.
  • 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.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: As evidenced by the brief sex scene between Chikatilo and his wife, after which she snaps, "Pathetic". This was Truth in Television, and in the movie, as in Real Life, Chikatilo could only achieve an erection when raping/killing someone.
  • 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.
  • Mask of Sanity: Chikatilo is able to cover up his murderous instincts in his everyday life. As soon as the opportunity presents itself, he drops the act and becomes a violent predator.
  • 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 (the real Chikatilo really had this trait though).
  • 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.
    • You can tell Fetisov feels like dirt when he learns that the FBI makes rotations every year and a half to avoid their agents getting emotionally hurt by complicated cases, while he has almost forced Burakov to work 24/7 on this one for five years.
  • Police Are Useless: Played straight for the first 15 minutes, then gradually inverted over the rest 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 effective heroes.
    Fetisov: (to Federenko, Burakov's second in command, while watching Burakov examine a crime scene) So you would say that he is a good detective?
    Federenko: I’ve never worked with anyone as good.
  • Pre-Mortem One-Liner: One of the most beige and impersonal in movie history, when the executioner tells Chikatilo: "Please, don't turn around."
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Fetisov. Only Fetisov.
  • Rule of Three: In the film, Burakov passes three times under a Lenin poster on his way home. The third time is after Perestroika and the poster has been torn off.
  • Soviet Superscience: Inverted. Soviet criminology is consistently portrayed two steps behind the Americans.
  • 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: Chikatilo is one of the worst recorded in Russia and the world.
  • The Sociopath: Andrei Chikatilo, who vents his feelings of inadequacy by raping and murdering children.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: Bondarchuk's quote in the page header.
  • Take That!: To Communism, or at least how communist Russia was run during the time of the case.
  • They Look Just Like Everyone Else!: Andrei Chikatilo is a fairly normal downtrodden Soviet factory worker, who just so happens to deal with his stress about his downtrodden factory worker life via brutal murders.
  • Token Good Teammate: See Reasonable Authority Figure. Fetisov is the only member of the committee assigned to deal with the Serial Killer who actually seems to want to do just that.
  • Undying Loyalty: Fetisov to Burakov, to the latter's initial skepticism but eventual gratitude.
  • Wham Line:
    • "Did he have a bag?"
    • Also:
    Bondarchuk: (About Burakov and in front of the entire committee) "Replace him."
    Fetisov: "No."
  • 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.
  • 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.