With a title that nods to Robert Bresson and a high concept script that doffs its cap to The Fugitive, this film is in fact very much its own beast, a rollicking cat-and-mouse thriller pungently set in a Soviet Russia where everybody is a subject, even the soldiers in charge. It’s late-30s Leningrad and the purges are in full swing. The captain craves redemption, a last-minute pass into heaven. In the meantime he’s running like a rabbit through hell.
Yuri Borisov plays Volkonogov, a shaven-headed strongman with the national security service who absconds with a folder carrying a list of the dead. His plan is to notify the family members who are still posting socks, scarves and letters to the gulags every week, believing that their loved ones are alive and will one day be released. The truth is a shock, but it also brings closure. Volkonogov figures that if he can convince one person to forgive him, his own soul might be saved.
The set-up for Aleksey Chupov and Natasha Merkulova’s film is machine-tooled and schematic; a hostage to fortune that will have to be fully honoured later on. But no matter. It sets the direction of travel and provides a potent narrative engine as the captain goes haring from one name to the next. Pursuing him through the city’s soot and rubble is Major Golovnya (Timofey Tribuntsev), who suffers from lung disease and is struggling to stay the course. The captain knows the major will kill him if he catches him. The major knows the colonel will kill him if he fails. Russia’s chain of command is a conga-line of murderers, with everyone’s knife in the man ahead’s back.
Small wonder that Volkonogov has come to despair of it all. The film shows us a country that has slipped through the looking-glass. In this gaslit hall of mirrors nothing is true except what’s decided on high. The “arrest schedule” needs to be met every day while “re-evaluation” invariably involves a death sentence. In one chilling scene a Soviet officer smirkingly concedes that the people they’re targeting are not really spies or terrorists. The problem, though, is that they are unreliable and can’t be trusted in a crisis. “They’re innocent right now,” concludes the officer. “But they’ll be guilty later on.”
Volkonogov is on the run, but the title’s misleading. Nobody escapes this world, or even remains at large for long. The captain, himself a master of torture, execution and the state’s Catch-22 logic, knows this as well as anyone, and the release he desires is not a physical one.
Captain Volkonogov Escaped is the bullish middleweight contender in this year’s competition lineup. Its line of attack is remorseless, an ongoing rain of hammer blows, and yet it never feels especially dour or heavy. If anything, Chupov and Merkulova’s handling of the material is almost playful, choosing to frame Stalin’s Russia as nightmarish deadpan comedy. There’s a hint of slapstick to a scene in which a handcuffed Volkonogov attempts to shake off his captors, and a camp absurdity to the depiction of the national security goons with their gleaming bullet heads and ruby-red leotards. One of the most vivid inhabitants of this chamber of horrors is the state executioner, a Leningrad legend who is fawned over by the officers. He wears a neck-tie and apron and gently adjusts the tilt of each person’s head, like a kindly old barber, ticking his customers off one-by-one.
• This article was amended on 9 September 2021 to correct misspellings of “Volkonogov” in the headline, photo caption and text.