You might think that it would be difficult to murder a large number of people in a totalitarian society and get away with it, but you would be wrong. This is the engrossing premise of a cracking new thriller directed by Daniel Espinosa, produced by Ridley Scott and based on the best-seller of the same name by Tom Rob Smith.
The action is set in the early 1950s, in the late Stalinist Soviet Union, where the MGB state security apparatus is still omnipotent and omnipresent. Despite this, there is a serial child murderer on the loose who has been eviscerating boys and depositing them by railway tracks. Child 44 is the latest victim, the son of the hero Leo Demidov’s brother, who gives the film its name. His principal enemy is not the killer himself, who accepts his fate remarkably passively once uncovered, but the Soviet bureaucracy and the suspicion and apathy of the population at large.
The reason is that the Soviet Union is supposed to be a worker’s paradise, and as Demidov’s superiors remind him there cannot be crime, let alone a serial mass child murderer in paradise. So the vast repressive apparatus of the state is turned not against the perpetrator, but on the honest MGB agent Demidov (an indestructible Tom Hardy) whose insistence that the dozens of deaths are not only murder but also connected is a terrible reproach to the Soviet state myth.
Instead, the authorities are obsessed with foreign influences and agents. The hero begins the film chasing a suspect. It soon becomes clear that the quarry is running not because he is guilty of anything but because he is being chased. The sequence ends with Demidov asking the captive whether he is a foreign agent. “Does it matter?”, the doomed man asks, the point being that the regime generates and thrives on paranoia anxieties the truth-content of which are entirely irrelevant.
Likewise, when the state finally accepts the killer’s existence it can only do so on the basis of a double lie. First, that Demidov’s sworn enemy within the MGB, whom he has just slain after a desperate struggle, has in fact fallen heroically in mortal combat with the killer. Secondly, that the murderer—who has in fact been scarred by the terrible famines of the 1930s and the experience of Soviet orphanages—had been turned into a human time bomb during his time as a prisoner of war by the Nazi camp commanders as a planned “late revenge” of the vanquished foe against the triumphant Soviet Union. The anti-foreign paranoia with which the film begins thus comes full circle at its close.
To be clear, Child 44 is a thriller not a profound work of historical-political criticism; it is multiplex, not arthouse. Some of the characters, and the accents, verge on or topple over into cliché. The final scene, when Demidov and his wife adopt two peasant children his squad had orphaned at the start of the film sits uneasily with the bleakness of the rest of the movie.
It is nonetheless a powerful film, rich in allusions to past productions, such as David Lean’s Dr Zhivago, a sprawling epic on Revolutionary Russia, and Peter Weir’s The Way Back, which starts with an extended Soviet camp sequence. It greatest debt, however, is surely to Fritz’s Lang’s classic M, which as much a study of the ills of society as the mind of Peter Lorre’s murderer. Similarly, the actual killings and their detection is almost incidental to Espinosa’s persuasive depiction of the sheer drab awfulness of everyday life in late Stalinist Russia and the deadening effect of state terror on a population numbed by more than three decades of revolution, famine, war and repression.
This is most effectively demonstrated by the relationship between Demidov and his wife Raisa. The story of their first encounter is related in macho fashion by the husband as one in which he had forgotten the girl’s name. Very soon, however, it becomes clear that she had been so worried about being wooed by an agent of the MGB that she had originally given him a false name. Once tracked down, she feels that she “had no choice” but to marry him. The marriage is near breaking point when the MGB accuses Raisa of espionage. Even when Demidov is convinced of his wife’s innocence and refuses to abandon her, state security punishes them with banishment, despite knowing them to be not guilty. This particular story is fictional, to be sure, but it depicts a scenario that was all too true for millions of Russians at the time.
What makes all this more interesting is the fact that Child 44 has recently been banned in Russia. Ostensibly, this is on the grounds that the film dishonours the dead of the Great Patriotic War, who have just been honoured with great pomp in Moscow. There is something in this: the film begins with the final Red Army assault on the Reichstag in April 1945, when the iconic moment of the hoisting of the Soviet banner is marred by the presence of stolen wristwatches on the sleeves of the victors, which have to be air-brushed out of the official photograph.
The real reason, though, is that the brutal depiction of life in Stalinist Russia, with its lies, evasions, and general crumminess, not to mention its murderous state power, unsettles the regime. It too silences opposition through incarceration and even death, having murdered or connived in the assassination of countless journalists and lately of the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. It too seeks to create mass psychosis about foreign spies and influences, on whom all Russia’s ills are blamed. It too has created an alternative reality where, as Peter Pomerantsev’s much-discussed recent book on Russia Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible (Faber, £14.99).
Mr Putin has clearly got the message. It is time we did too.