A Soviet secret service officer takes it on the lam to avoid what he knows all too well is coming for him in Captain Volkonogov Escaped, a tight procedural thriller from directors Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov based on a real-life scenario that includes some increasingly relevant contemporary parallels.
Coming to the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival after debuting at last year’s Venice Film Festival, Captain Volkonogov Escaped is a canny blend of genres that mixes a criminal-on-the-run narrative akin to something like The Taking of Pelham 123 with some shocking pitch-black comedy and horror elements borrowed from An American Werewolf in London.
By the late 1930s, Stalinist purges were de rigueur throughout the ranks of Soviet government offices: information was potentially dangerous to the regime, and experienced personnel were routinely executed and replaced by fresh recruits.
The titular NKVD officer Captain Volkonogov (Yuriy Borisov, in a strikingly controlled performance) knows this all too well: together with Major Gvozdev (Aleksandr Yatsenko), he’s been practicing “preventative action against potential threats”: processing and executing innocent people who have nevertheless been identified as posing a potential future threat.
Of course, the innocent cannot be unjustly executed, even in Soviet Russia: so Volkonogov and Gvozdev torture them into signing a confession before they are lined up in the courtyard and executed. Volkonogov repeatedly refers to the “special measures” taken while interrogating his subjects, which the American CIA would later term “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
When Volkonogov shows up to work one morning as Gvozdev splatters on the pavement in front of him, he knows something is up: as the rest of his department is taken away one-by-one to be “processed for re-evaluation”, the Captain quietly slips out the front door and makes a clean getaway.
In one Captain Volkonogov Escaped’s most darkly humorous sequences, Volkonogov is picked up after disguising himself as a homeless person by officials who have no idea who he is; the homeless have been rounded up to dig graves for the Captain’s former colleagues.
It’s here that Volkonogov comes face-to-face with tortured and executed friend Veretennikov (Nikita Kukushkin), who rises from the grave to tell him that he needs to seek forgiveness in order to enter heaven.
This sets off the bulk of Captain Volkonogov Escaped’s storyline: as the former captain chases down relatives of those he’s tortured and submitted for execution, who couldn’t be less interested in offering him forgiveness, new NKVD Major Golovnya (Timofey Tribuntsev) is tasked with tracking him down through the streets of St. Petersburg with the help of new batch of green recruits.
While the Karlovy Vary festival is typically a European launchpad for new Russian films, Captain Volkonogov Escaped was the only Russian-produced title in this year’s lineup; still, it’s inclusion drew criticism from the Ukrainian Embassy in Prague, who have called on festivals to boycott the inclusion of Russian-produced films in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
That’s a shame: Captain Volkonogov Escaped is not only a outright satire of Stalinist purges, but a pointed critique of similar efforts that continue to be practiced in modern-day Russia. It’s also a gripping thriller with some biting commentary, and one of the better films to screen at this year’s festival in Karlovy Vary.