BERLIN — Presidential elections in Russia couldn’t have come at a better time for Dennis Gansel’s latest thriller, “The Fourth State.”
Originally set to open in January, the pic ultimately ended up with a less-crowded release date March 8, coincidentally just four days after Vladimir Putin’s presidential victory that many are observing as fraud-marred.
Eerily mirroring the current political shenanigans in Moscow and offering a damning indictment of Putin’s 12-year reign, “The Fourth State” follows a German journo, played by Moritz Bleibtreu, who travels to the Russian capital to take a job as a society-pages editor at a city magazine, only to get caught in a web of political intrigue marked by assassinations and bombings.
While the English-language pic is purely fictional, the pic’s strongman Russian president is a thinly masked version of Putin, one whose government is actively engaged in terrorist acts blamed on Chechen rebels and anti-government protesters.
A huge fan of New Hollywood era political thrillers, Teuton filmmaker Gansel was inspired by such works as “Three Days of the Condor” and “The Parallax View.” He says it’s an intelligent genre that has been conspicuously missing from European cinema, but one that he would like to revive.
Indeed, before making the fast-paced vampire thriller “We Are the Night,” the critically acclaimed “The Wave” and World War II drama “Napola” (Before the Fall), Gansel made his directorial debut in 2000 with “The Phantom,” a political thriller about the German secret service’s links to West Germany’s RAF terrorist group.
The exploitation of terrorism by governments to sway policy and public opinion is a subject that has long fascinated Gansel, and “The Fourth State” sketches a variation of the theme.
Gansel decided to focus on the plight of journalists in Russia following the 2006 assassination of writer Anna Politkovskaya, one of Putin’s biggest critics.
“Russia itself fascinated me because people don’t really know anything about the new Russia,” Gansel says. “Russia during the Cold War has been widely covered in film, from the James Bond movies to ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,’ but there’s hardly anything about modern Russia.”
In prepping the film, Gansel visited Russian prisons and spoke with more than 100 people, including former Chechen rebels, political prisoners, police officers, lawyers and Putin supporters. A central plot point revolves around a series of apartment block bombings in Russia that claimed nearly 300 lives in 1999, and the widespread accounts that Russian secret police were behind the explosions.
Initially there was little interest in focusing on the political aspects of the film in terms of marketing. “Then all this started with Putin — no one could have known. There was even an alleged assassination attempt against Putin by Chechen rebels, which the secret service thwarted. And then they paraded the Chechen in front of the cameras; it was really similar to the film.”
Truth soon became stranger than fiction.
“During filming, we discussed having 300 extras for a demonstration scene. Our Russian advisor said demonstrations in Russia attract 100 people at the most, and half of those are pensioners because people who work don’t protest for fear of losing their jobs. Now that the film is finished, there are 80,000 people demonstrating on the streets.”
Massive protests erupted in Moscow and across Russia amid widespread reports of fraud following December’s parliamentary elections, and have continued in the wake of the March 4 presidential election that swept Putin back into power.
Budgeted at $8.3 million, “The Fourth State,” which also stars Kasia Smutniak and Max Riemelt, was shot mostly in Berlin, with additional filming in Kiev and Moscow. It marks Gansel’s first film for UFA Cinema, where he teamed with longtime producing partner Nina Maag, who joined the company in 2009.
Film opened slowly in Germany with $534,000. Paris-based Celluloid Dreams is handling “The Fourth State” internationally and has already inked a slew of deals for the pic, including France’s Bac Films and G2 Pictures for the U.K., Scandinavia and the Benelux.
While Gansel has traditionally penned his own movies, including “The Fourth State,” he’s become a fan of U.S. scripts and is eager to work on an American film.
Although he has yet to receive offers, he has perused a number of hot properties. “You read stuff like ‘Londongrad,’ ‘Devil in the White City,’ ‘Motor City’ — these are some really phenomenal scripts,” he says. “I’d really like to do something like that. I’ve already made six films in Germany, covered a lot of ground, and just shot an English-language movie. It would be the natural next step to make a U.S. film.”
At the moment, Gansel is developing an adaptation of “Give the Boy a Gun,” by Todd Strasser, author of the “The Wave,” for Munich-based Rat Pack.
Set in Germany, the story follows two troubled and heavily armed students who take their classmates hostage.