The story of the hunt for a serial killer, 2015 film adaptation Child 44 is crammed with metaphors of hell. Here are some interpretations.
What is Child 44 about?
After WWII, soldier and ‘soviet hero’ Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) joins the military police. Hunting traitors is important work in Stalin’s Russia, and Demidov’s team is brutally effective at it. Then Demidov’s wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace) falls under suspicion.
Exiled from Moscow, Demidov is demoted to a local police force. The couple swap their former grand existence for a life of poverty and intimidation in Volsk.
Demidov becomes drawn to a series of deaths involving young boys. In Moscow he had to record these as accidental because “there can be no murder in paradise”. In Volsk – far from paradise – he can no longer deny the work of a serial killer.
But there are those who don’t want Demidov to investigate. Former colleague Vasili is particularly intent on destroying Demidov. Now the couple must race to stop the serial killer before another child is murdered.
No murder in paradise
Stalin’s Russia was no place for criticism. Criticism of the state was too close to disloyalty and criminality. This is what Demidov means when he warns that “there can be no murder in paradise” after Alexei’s son dies.
Pointing out the flaws would give reality to the corruption the state preferred to hide. For that reason, Alexei and Demidov must keep their suspicions to themselves.
But there’s more to this. The state itself sanctions the use of murder in certain circumstances – death by firing squad, for instance. Then there’s the way Vasili kills an innocent couple simply because he can. Acknowledging murder is risky if it highlights the state’s misdeeds at the same time.
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But is it paradise?
Demidov’s life in Moscow seems perfect compared to ordinary citizens. He has an impressive apartment, and enjoys grandiose dinners with other officers. But the life he thinks he has is built on lies.
At the start of the film, Leo reveals how he met his wife. Demidov thinks it’s cute that Raisa gave him a false name back then, yet it hides a much bigger deception. Raisa doesn’t love Demidov. She only agreed to marry him because, like not talking about murder, it was the safer option.
Murder does indeed destroy this vision of paradise. First Demidov speaks out when Vasili shoots an innocent couple without reason. This sets Vasili up as an agent of Demidov’s destruction, and leads to Raisa’s confessing she doesn’t love Leo.
More significantly, the child murders disrupt this fake vision of paradise. And once Demidov becomes aware of the injustice all around him, he finds himself in hell.
What does hell look like?
The difference between heaven and hell is a subtle one. The film’s colour palette is dark and muddy throughout; there are lots of shadows, and dimly lit scenes.
Still, paradise (Moscow) has neat offices, private rooms and candlelit dinners. Hell (Volsk) has poverty, dirt and daily abuse. Paradise is about denial, while hell has murder. Paradise has friendships and alliances (Demidov and Alexei, Raisa and Sukov). There are no friendships in hell. Vasili kills Alexei, Sukov is a double agent, and Raisa doesn’t even love Demidov.
At the same time, paradise only exists if you have power. Initially, Demidov is a high-ranking security officer, and lives a seemingly perfect existence. Once he’s cast out of Moscow (like a fallen angel), he experiences the hell of those who don’t have power, wealth or influence.
In another way, paradise is an unfeeling place. Demidov battles to lock away his emotions so he can carry on doing the state’s work. In hell, he starts to face up to the pain within and all around him.
The consequences of murder
Once the characters admit murder might be possible, it brings on other consequences.
Firstly, it leads to more murder. More dead children are found, though of course they’ve always been there but either unseen or hidden away. This is what the film’s title references: Child 44 is Alexei’s son, Jora. Before him there are 43 other, invisible murdered children.
Both Vasili and Demidov are also drawn into further killings. While Demidov kills to stay alive, Vasili kills out of cruelty. This fits with the idea of the two men being mirror opposites of each other (read more about the double theory).
Vasili wants to be Demidov – partly out of jealousy, partly as means of cancelling out his own cowardice. Achieving this means destroying Demidov’s life, luring Raisa away, and finally trying to have Leo killed.
The other consequence is to highlight an impossible dichotomy. If there can be no murder in paradise, does that mean there’s no murder, or no paradise? For Demidov, the question shatters his earlier delusions – and leads to a new kind of perfection.
In a literal sense, ‘hell’ is paradise lost. But the paradise that Demidov is exiled from isn’t real. When he falls into hell, he doesn’t actually fall far. It’s more that his eyes are opened to the hell that’s already around him.
Raisa may already be wise to this when she tells him it’s ‘their turn’ to lose status. She recognises the frailty of their lives, built as they are on lies, and the lottery of social status. And perhaps it’s a nod to a deserved punishment, because each of them is a flawed and guilty character.
In any case, being exiled is a cathartic journey that leads to a truer and more tangible kind of paradise.
The film ends with Demidov and Raisa forming true feelings for each other. They go on to create a real family, adopting the children orphaned by Vasili. This is a very natural resolution (I’ve explained before how almost all films are about family and love).
It also closes the loop of the film’s beginning, when Demidov is himself shown to be an orphan. By striving to be good and show goodness (despite the ease of being vengeful or murderous) Demidov is rewarded with kindness and true fortune.
The threat of murder recedes with the hope of a new future – and without murder, this could well be paradise.
Child 44 (2015), directed by Daniel Espinosa
Picture credit: Summit Entertainment, LLC