In 1989, after Czechoslovakia freed itself from the under the Iron Curtain, president Václav Havel instituted a general amnesty that was intended to free those who had been falsely imprisoned by the communist regime.
But the amnesty also freed some that should have remained behind bars, such as Slovak serial killer Ondrej Rigo, who would go on to kill 9 women across Europe after being released from prison. Slovak author Dominik Dán’s Beštia recreates Rigo’s story against the backdrop of Czechoslovakia in the era of Havel’s amnesty.
But the freed convicts weren’t the criminal element operating on the country’s streets at the time. Rudý kapitán, adapted from Dán’s follow-up novel to Beštia, opens with Rigo’s capture before peeling back the layers to examine another threat: former agents of the Czechoslovak secret police, StB, who were now scrambling to cover the tracks of their prior crimes.
In this Czech-Slovak-Polish co-production, Polish actor Maciej Stuhr stars as Bratislava detective Richard Krauz, who gets turned on to a seven-year-old murder after the accidental discovery of a corpse with a nail embedded in the skull.
The evidence points to torture, and the methods point to the StB; to complicate matters, the victim had ties to the Catholic Church. His partner Eduard Burger (Marián Geišberg) warns him against investigating the case, which is especially sticky given that some of his current colleagues, including Ivan (Martin Finger), are former StB operatives.
Stuhr, who might be most familiar to local audiences from the popular Christmastime comedy Letters to Santa, has a grizzled Gary Sinise thing going on here, and makes for a great determined detective, though the family-life stuff with wife Sylva (Helena Krajčiová) and a young daughter doesn’t stick as well as the police business.
But Stuhr and other cast members suffer from an inevitable evil in these kinds of international co-productions: TV-level dubbing which removes any nuance from the performances. Polish and Slovak actors have been dubbed into Czech for the film, at least in local cinemas.
The detective work in Rudý kapitán has plenty of twists and turns, with information and clues leading to characters played Michal Suchánek and Oldřich Kaiser, but the narrative is a refreshingly straightforward kind of thing that doesn’t pull any punches. This is a compelling 90s era cop thriller/detective mystery that never attempts to be anything that it isn’t.
In Prague, Kaiser’s image is plastered across posters for the film; he’s in it for all of three scenes, however, and despite playing the titular character, the role is not as significant as viewers are led to expect.
Kaiser does participate in one of the film’s highlights, however: a great and unexpectedly gruesome old-man fight scene in which a pair of senior citizens go at it using everything they’ve got, including a corkscrew, a broken bottle, and even a model ship.
Courtesy of cinematographer Kacper Fertacz, Rudý kapitán is baked in golden hues that replicate the heat wave that ran through the country in the summer of 1992. While exact locations are rarely specified, the movie was primarily filmed in Bratislava, Krakow, and Olomouc.
Set and production design, which incorporates digital some effects, are first-rate; while this film, like the recent Lída Baarová, inserts its characters in some stock footage backgrounds, the effect is seamless here.
Rudý kapitán represents the directorial debut of Bratislava-born filmmaker Michal Kollár, who displays a deft hand and confidence in his material. This kind of no-nonsense filmmaking is unfortunately lacking on the mainstream Czech film scene; enjoy it while you can.
It also happens to be set during one of the most interesting periods of history in Czechoslovakia, where two very different types of criminal elements were operating in the country’s streets.