The Assassin of the Tsar

by Glenn Erickson Apr 11, 2023

Get set for another intriguing Russian import from Deaf Crocodile Films. Karen Shakhnazarov’s tale interweaves history with our essential human identity: if the truth of past events remains hidden, how can we know who we are?  Star Malcolm McDowell is Timofeyev, an asylum inmate convinced that he’s killed two Tsars, at different times in history. Conscientious doctor Oleg Yankovskiy tries to get to the bottom of the man’s delusion . . . a bad idea. Viewers with a special interest in the Romanovs might want to look into this one.

The Assassin of the Tsar
Deaf Crocodile Films
1991 / Color / 1:37 Academy / 104 min. / Tsareubiytsa / Street Date March, 2023 / Available from The Deaf Crocodile Shop / 27.99
Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Oleg Yankovskiy, Armen Dzhigarkhanyan, Yuriy Sherstnyov, Anzhela Ptashuk, Viktor Seferov, Olga Antonova, Dariya Majorova, Evgeniya Kryukova, Alyona Teremizova, Olga Borisova, Anastasiya Nemolyaeva, Aleksey Logunov, Vyacheslav Vdovin, Vyacheslav Mukhov, Denis Dmitriev, Nadezhda Makeko.
Cinematography: Nikolay Nemolyaev
Production Designer, Art Director: Lyudmila Kusakova
Costume Design: Vera Romanova
Film Editor: Lidiya Milioti
Original Music: John Altman, Vladislav Shut
Written by Aleksandr Borodyanskiy, Karen Shakhnazarov
Produced by Christopher Gawor, Anthony Sloman, Erik Waisberg
Directed by
Karen Shakhnazarov

Just last October we reviewed the unique Russian film Zerograd, a feature-length absurdist rumination on the way Soviet Russia obscured its own history, to the point that ‘nobody knows anything’ about their past because they were never encouraged to seek out the actual truth. Zerograd appeared in 1988, when Russian films were becoming more outspoken about the realities of life in the Soviet Union. The filmmaker was Karen Shakhnazarov, an artist with an interest in the theme of false history and false identity.

The Soviet Union fell but the Mosfilm studio stayed intact, with Shakhnazarov holding a high position. Apparently interested in co-productions with foreign companies, he almost put together a film of Anton Chekhov’s Ward No. 6, with Italian co-producers and starring Marcello Mastroianni. When that project fell apart the curious, somewhat similar The Assassin of the Tsar came together, teaming the prestigious Soviet actor Oleg Yankovskiy with the imported name star Malcolm McDowell. Co-written with his frequent collaborator Aleksandr Borodyanskiy, Shakhnazarov’s clever story also takes place in an asylum, but also in an imaginative recreation of history. Or, a madman’s version of history.

The story takes place in an asylum?  Before one can say Caligari or Dr. Tarr and Professor Feather, we innocent viewers are prepared for narrative surprises and reversals. But the show has an entirely different agenda. Shakhnazarov doesn’t pursue a horror thriller or a mystery with a twist plot. In fact, the subject of insanity isn’t essential to the storyline — the two doctors in the story are just caretakers, faced with a curious patient whose behavior doesn’t follow normal patterns.

At a well-run mental asylum around 1990, Dr. Yegorovich (Armen Dzhigarkhanyan) is retiring, and as part of his hand-off to the new chief medico Dr. Smirnov (Oleg Yankovskiy) arranges an interview with the most puzzling patient in the building, Timofeyev (Malcolm McDowell). At first Timofeyev seems a garden variety lunatic — with clear-eyed sincerity, he explains that what he once thought were delusions, like a little girl coming to talk to him, are actually parts of his past life: he assassinated both Tsar Alexander II in 1881 and Tsar Nicolas II in 1918. Timofeyev’s ‘reasonable’ sincerity strikes Smirnov as special — the man may be nuts, but he’s not trying to fool them. Complicating the case are strange phenomena: ligature bruises appear on Timofeyev’s neck, on the anniversary of the death of Nicolai Rysakov, Alexander II’s assassin.


Dr. Smirnov is advised just to let Timofeyev be, but he can’t let it go and is soon immersed in the man’s incredibly detailed recounting of his experiences as ‘Yurovsky,’ the secret policeman who oversaw the execution of Nicolas II and his entire family. But something unexpected happens — Smirnov begins to identify personally with Nicolas, and finds himself ‘remembering’ the death of Nicolas’ grandfather, Alexander.

The Assassin of the Tsar is definitely a think-piece, not an action film or even a murder thriller. It ends up being a rumination about ideas of identity — the relationship of one to one’s history, in particular the hidden corners of national history. There’s no explaining Timofeyev’s ‘memories,’ which appear as flashback-like pieces of time in ornate detail. Smirnov and Yegorovich are impressed enough not to dismiss them as ravings. This is helped by the fact that Timofeyev has no easily discernable ulterior motive, a reason to confabulate. He acknowledges that they’re things ‘he once believed’ — but when he gets into them, he remembers them like yesterday. He even remembers Yurovsky’s own death in a hospital twenty years later, unable to process his role in historical events.

Shakhnazarov’s movie fells sane and straightforward, considering the strange visual detours it takes. An opening prologue shows views of a crumbled city and a chamber with weird ancient relics, all connected to the Bible story of Daniel. ‘You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting’ is related to the fall of a king; deep into the movie, Smirnov and Yegorovich will return to the theme in conversation. When hallucinating that he’s Nicolas II, Smirnov is absorbed by the inevitability of his own murder.

When the Soviet Union dissolved, opportunistic American producers rushed in. This writer had contact with a show called The Ice Runner, which sent Edward Albert and Victor Wong to film in Siberia, and had to dodge some insecure political developments. We might think that Mosfilm would also possible invent a crossover movie that could feature an internationally-known name actor.


That is clearly not the case here. Malcolm McDowell tended to be ordinary in villainous parts, but his transparent emotions served him well when playing insolent rebels and open-minded romantics. He was perfect as Lindsay Anderson’s innocent pilgrim, and he’s likewise winningly charismatic as Timofeyev, a guy with nothing to hide and a story guaranteed to get him locked up. McDowell’s Timofeyev shuffles around in a green jumpsuit, takes his pills, and always has a good attitude. He’s happy to cooperate with the investigating Smirnov.

The show perhaps does nod a bit to commercial concerns — Smirnov is apparently too preoccupied by the Timofeyev mystery to have sex with his girlfriend, who appears in a couple of nude scenes. The asylum orderly Kozlov (Yuriy Sherstnyov) looks brutish but is actually kind and gentle. We soon accept that this asylum is a humanitarian establishment, and nobody is being abused. The camera observes some arts ‘n’ crafts activity, convincing us we’re likely seeing real patients. Timofeyev is even offered a transfer to a facility that might be more attractive, but he’s happy where he is, minding his own business and sweeping the local square for exercise.


Wisely, Shakhnazarov does not equate running time with profundity. The picture never drags — it isn’t an excercise in stasis or longueurs. We are told that the fate of the Romanov family was indeed warped by official secrecy, with the Soviets not fully acknowledging what happened for eight full years, and only when details were leaked to the West. Depicting this non-event in a Soviet film just wasn’t possible, even after the 1971 epic  Nicholas and Alexandra  dramatized the executions in full detail. *

The flashbacks (time travel sequences?) are excellent. The 1881 scenes are nicely stylized — Timofeyev/Rysakov’s memories of his anarchist bombing are stylized, while Smirnov’s vision of ‘his’ grandfather in his deathbed looks like an image from a grand historical drama. We see Nicolas and Alexandra shuttled to their final rural hideout with their children and retainers, as Yurovsky and other Soviet agents arrange for a mass slaughter. ‘Extraneous’ elements, like a distraught woman outside the death house looking for a lost daughter, take on emotional significance, as does the assassins’ maneuvering to see that a young visitor to the Romanovs — a boy whose uncle has already been secretly shot — is removed from harm’s way. We only get a few moments with the royal family. Alexandra (Olga Antonova) despairs of her own mistakes in the past; one of the daughters recites some poetry, observed by a curious servant.


Nicolas himself is isolated and confused, putting up a good front for his family but falling apart inside. Since we’re aware that ‘within’ Nicolas is also Dr. Smirnov (the actor plays both roles) we completely understand how the doctor could go insane. He’s as  ‘unstuck in time‘  as any Kurt Vonnegut protagonist.

The real puzzle is partly outside the movie. Director co-writer Shakhnazarov seems obsessed with the intersection of history and personal identity/responsibility. As in Caligari and the Poe and Chekhov stories, madness is contagious. In this case the madness is an awareness of a different dimension of existence — one can’t separate one’s destiny from key events of the past. In this sense, we are events that define our cultural existence whether we acknowledge them or not: the Kennedy assassinations, the Manson Murders, ‘9/11’ and ‘January 6 2021.’ Shakhnazarov’s notion of historical continuity also connects with science fiction — Philip K. Dick proposed a mind-expanding concept of ‘historicity’ in his novel The Man in the High Castle; objects ‘devolve’ into earlier forms in another Dick novel, Ubik.

For this particular viewer, The Assassin of the Tsar directly resonates with, of all things, a scene in Alan Sharp / Arthur Penn’s detective neo-noir Night Moves. When drunk, Gene Hackman’s Harry Moseby admits that he’s obsessed with a famous chess game that a great champion lost because he couldn’t predict ‘three little knight moves.’  The chess player regretted his mistake all his life, but Harry feels equally despairing for the mistake. He’s connected to it even though he wasn’t born when it happened. The assassinations of the Kennedys are evoked in the same context, as shared tragedies that persist in our cores, and define us.

I suppose that’s what an intellectual film does — it stimulates thought outside itself. Or, it encourages us to find patterns of significance, whether they’re there or not.



Deaf Crocodile Films’ Blu-ray of The Assassin of the Tsar is a flawless transfer of this very handsomely filmed show. The present-day setting in a quiet town is not particularly oppressive; Smirnov occasionally stares out his apartment window to the Asylum, on the other side of a barren field. The historical scenes evoke the splendor of the Romanovs’ winter palace, and a couple of way-stops in their months-long captivity by the Soviets. Nicolas keeps up appearances at all times, imprisoned in his place in history. The uniforms, costumes, houses and vehicles all look authentic.

The disc presentation is actually two films — Shakhnazarov filmed two versions simultaneously. The Assassin of the Tsar is alone on the main menu. Everyone performs in English and Malcolm McDowell’s own voice is heard. In the extras menu is the domestic version Tsareubiytsa, which follows the exact same continuity, but with different shot choices — the prologue is entirely different. McDowell seems to have done his phonetic best with the Russian, to get his lip movements approximately correct. His dubbed Russian voice is excellent, and the displacement effect from the familiar actor is actually an asset. We’re also told that the Russian version carries a different music score.

Samm Deigan again provides a thoughtful audio commentary, a great help in clarifying the film’s aims. Shakhnazarov was later able to film his own version of Ward No. 6, but without a foreign star.

Deaf Crocodile’s Dennis Bartok conducts two very long interviews via Zoom, with Malcolm McDowell and director/Mosfilm head Karen Shakhnazarov. McDowell has fun stories to tell about working on the show. He had never expected such an offer but grabbed at the job after meeting the filmmaker — and apparently adjusted his standard working fee. The stories of how they packed for the trip, and his experiences on the set make for good listening. McDowell apparently had to instill his own notion of a schedule to the shoot, or the Russians would have had him filming in Moscow indefinitely — everybody was on set salaries and were in no rush to get the show done.

Shakhnazarov speaks decent English but uses an interpreter for part of his very lengthy interview, with Bartok fielding the pertinent questions. It’s a good interview, even if the director behaves just as would a U.S. personality — we don’t get the details about the failed Italian movie, but we several times hear that Shakhnazarov and Mastroianni ‘remained friends.’ The extras help to bring out the more abstract ideas behind the movie, and help us appreciate it even more. Walter Chaw provides a good overview essay in a six-page insert pamphlet.

The removable subtitles are excellent. They spell the main character’s name differently, as ‘Timofeev’ instead of ‘Timofeyev.’ On its website Deaf Crocodile shows different cover art for the disc … here’s the handsome cover of the screener received. Wait — sometimes the website does show the cover we received. Maybe I need to be committed.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Assassin of the Tsar
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent but Specialized
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Audio commentary by Samm Deighan
Separate Dennis Bartok interviews with Malcolm McDowell and director Karen Shakhnazarov
Insert essay by Walter Chaw.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
April 8, 2023

*  This would seem to contradict a scene in David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago, in which Ralph Richardson reads of the executions in an ordinary newspaper, just a couple of years into the revolution: “Oh dear — they’ve killed the Tsar, and his whole family.”


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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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