Child 44 (and five of the best movies about life under communist regimes)
Set during the Cold War and based on the 2008 novel of the same name by British author Tom Rob Smith, Child 44, directed by Daniel Espinosa, stars Tom Hardy as Leo Demidov, an ex-military war hero now working as an agent for the Russian Ministry of State Security (MGB) who discovers a disturbing series of child murders that all share the same modus operandi, leading him to believe that the murders are the work of a serial killer. His superiors however reject this suggestion out of hand, since Soviet doctrine dictates that serial killers are a product of capitalism and therefore a uniquely western phenomenon.
If any of that sounds familiar, it may because you've seen Chris Gerolmo's excellent made-for-TV movie Citizen X, starring Stephen Rea and Donald Sutherland. Both films are based on the true story of Andrei Chikatilo, a notorious Russian serial killer dubbed 'The Butcher of Rostov' who was responsible for the murders of over 50 children and young adults between 1978 and 1990. Chikatilo evaded capture for over a decade, largely due to a combination of the Soviet Union's limited forensic capabilities and its denial over the existence of serial killers in Russia, but where Citizen X is based on Robert Cullen's non-fiction book The Killer Department, detailing the investigation into his crimes by a detective named Viktor Burakov, Smith's novel takes a little more artistic licence with Chikatilo's story.
When the child of a friend becomes one of the killer's victims, Demidov appeals to his commanding officer to investigate the murders, but the MGB refuses to acknowledge the deaths as such and Demidov decides to continue the investigation alone. When his wife Rasia (Noomi Rapace) is accused of being disloyal to the state and Leo refuses to endorse the accusations, he is demoted and sent along with Rasia to work as a militia in the remote town of Volsk. Undeterred, Leo continues to investigate with the help of his new commander, General Mikhail Nesterov (Gary Oldman) and soon begins to uncover a trail that will lead him to the killer.
Co-produced by Ridley Scott, who originally purchased the rights to adapt Smith's novel for the big screen, Espinosa's film boasts an impressive cast that also includes appearances from Joel Kinnaman, Vincent Cassel, Paddy Considine and Charles Dance in addition to those already mentioned, with Hardy turning in a predictably strong performance. There are times during Child 44 though when you wonder if they've tried to cram too much of Smith's novel into a two-hour film. Some audiences have found the myriad of sub-plots too confusing to follow and it does feel as though some of this could have been dispensed with, but here's a word of advice: if you're getting up to make a cup of tea at any point during the film, you may want to make use of the pause button, otherwise you may well miss something vital.
Below you can find the trailer for Child 44, which is out now on DVD and Blu-ray and underneath we've picked five other great films about life behind the iron curtain (you can check out each film in our online store by clicking on the title)...
Set in East Germany during the early 1980s before the fall of the Berlin wall, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's film details the culture of suspicion and surveillance under the communist government, carried out by the Stasi, or German secret police. Playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is considered to be a model loyal citizen, but for Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) his perfect public image is a little too perfect and Wiesler is sure that if he digs deep enough he will find some dirt on the famous writer.
Wiesler appeals to the Minister for Culture (Thomas Thieme) for permission to bug Dreyman's house and finds himself becoming increasingly obsessed with the lives of Dreyman and his wife Christa-Maria (martia Gedeck), but when he discovers that the Minister has romantic designs on Dreyman's wife, Wiesler begins to doubt his own investigation and finds himself helping Dreyman to avoid arrest. A brilliant directorial debut that examines the dubious morality of those working under totalitarian regimes, we can't recommend this film highly enough.
Romanian director Cristian Mungiu has turned in several brilliant films about life under communism in his home country, including the Palme d'Or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, but we've picked this superb black comedy which consists of six short stories, each based on popular urban legends which circulated during the last 15 years of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu's reign, often referred to in communist propaganda as 'the golden years', despite the abject poverty experienced by many Romanians at the time.
These stories include a local newspaper plunged into panic over a photograph in which Ceaușescu appears too short, a pair of conmen scamming residents of an apartment block with bottles of air, and a family that accidentally blows up their house when they use butane gas to kill a pig. Wickedly funny and superbly written, this is a unique look at the bleak but often hilarious experiences of life under a communist dictator. Not to be missed.
The premise of Wolfgang Becker's 2003 film is simple but brilliant; Alex (Daniel Bruhl) is a young man living in East Germany at the end of the 1980s with his mother (Katrin Saß), a staunch supporter of the GDR's communist government and a lifelong socialist. When Alex joins a friend on an anti-communist protest march and his mother spots him, the shock causes her to collapse and she spends the next several weeks hospitalised in a coma.
While she is unconscious, communism collapses and the Berlin wall is torn down, but then she wakes up. Alex is advised by the doctors that any kind of shock could kill her, and so Alex and friends concoct an elaborate plan to keep the truth from her. Becker's film is as sweet as it is smart and manages to depict the transition from communism to capitalism without being overly political. It's also very, very funny.
Roland Joffe's excellent 1984 film stars Sam Waterston as New York Times photographer Sydney Schanberg, who finds himself trapped in Cambodia right in the middle of Pol Pot's 'Year Zero' campaign, which saw some 2 million innocent Cambodians murdered by their own government.
Schanberg meets a local man named Dith Pran and helps evacuate his family from the advancing forces of the Khmer Rouge, but Pran stays behind to help Schanberg cover the massacre and soon finds that he may have missed his only opportunity to leave. The Killing Fields is not an easy film to watch, but there has been no better account of the Pol Pot's murderous reign in Cambodia on the big screen, before or since.
Although this classic 1954 animation based on George Orwell's seminal novel is ostensibly about a group of animals that wrestle control of a farm away from the humans, scratch the surface and you will find a tale that proves the dusty old adage “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
The central figure of interest here is a pig named Napoleon, a Stalin-esque character whose stated intentions of a fair system in which all are equal soon give way to his thirst for power, typified by his eventual assertion that “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
Directed by Joy Batchelor and John Halas, Animal Farm may be over 60 years old, but there have been few better depictions of how even the most well-intentioned political systems are easily corrupted when too much power is handed to the wrong person. An all-time classic and no mistake.