Saturday, November 07, 2015

3RFF ’15: The Photographer

During the Cold War, the Soviets not only quartered an occupying military force within Poland, they also groomed a serial killer in their midst. At least the young psychopath was eventually packed off to Russia, where he would keep busy as the nation’s most prolific and elusive murderer. The story of Kola Sokolow is fictional, but the Soviet and Russian attitudes it depicts are profoundly true in Waldemar Krzystek’s The Photographer (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Three Rivers Film Festival (that’s in Pittsburgh).

Natasza Sinkina actually had the nerve to arrest a regime-friendly oligarch who deliberately mowed down a young woman with his SUV. As a result, she is sent in for a psych evaluation, but it goes surprisingly well. It turns out she was not talking to the shrink she had been referred to, but the notorious serial killer known as “The Photographer” (so dubbed because of the forensic photography markers he always mockingly leaves around his corpses), who had just butchered the real psychiatrist in the next room. Unfortunately, due to strange circumstances, Sinkina never really got a good look at the chameleon-like murderer, but FSB Major Lebiadkin has her assigned to his task force anyway. He wants to know why the Photographer spared her.

Sinkina quickly deduces the psychiatrist was not a random spree killing. The Photographer deliberately stalked him, because of the archival films he had just shown in class. Secretly shot by the KGB for potential blackmail purposes, they record a rather disturbed young boy’s visits to a less than enlightened doctor. Young Kola was a gifted mimic, who refused to use his own voice. It is also safe to say the son of an ambitious Soviet officer also had parental issues. Like many people deemed inconvenient by the Socialist state, the seven year Kola was soon shipped off to a dubious mental hospital. His current whereabouts are unknown, but he appears to be headed back to Poland for old times’ sake.

Although it is quickly apparent Sokolow is the killer, The Photographer is still a tense cat-and-mouse thriller, constantly complicated by the grimly absurdist realities of the old Soviet and not so new Russian systems. You could say the Photographer is truly a product of his Communist environment, but his parents’ refusal to provide any sort of nurturing did not help either. Consequently, the stakes in Photographer are greater than “merely” catching a ruthless serial killer.

Aleksandr Baluev is absolutely terrific as the world weary but still Machiavellian Lebiadkin. He makes even the most routine procedural scenes unpredictable. Tatiana Arntgolts is also an impressively intelligent, coolly collected presence as Sinkina. Indeed, Krzystek and co-screenwriter Krzsztof Kopka treat her character with rare respect. Just about the only time it seems she needs her male colleagues’ help, it is largely because they put her in jeopardy. Although we hardly see the grown-up Photographer, Ukrainian Andriej Kostash is all kinds of creepy as the young Kola seen in flashbacks, while Elena Babenko will make your blood run cold as his Mommie Dearest.

Throughout Photographer, Krzystek clearly equates the bloody micro horrors of the Photographer with the macro horrors of the Soviet era, without bashing us over the head with his points. As a result, it is quite distinct from any other serial killer film you have seen before. Unusually cerebral, but also gritty and gripping, The Photographer is recommended for mystery-thriller fans when it screens this Monday (11/9) and Wednesday (11/11), as part of the Three Rivers Film Festival.