'The Fourth State'

A German party journo based in Moscow discovers Russian politics aren't exactly something to write home about in "The Fourth State."

A German party journo based in Moscow discovers Russian politics aren’t exactly something to write home about in “The Fourth State,” a steely Euro thriller from Teuton scribe-helmer Dennis Gansel (“The Wave”). Moritz Bleibtreu heads the international cast of this primarily English-language suspenser, which daringly suggests that some states engineer terrorist acts to get public opinion on their side, but otherwise frustratingly sticks to the genre rulebook. Unlikely to be a (legal) smash hit in Russia, pic will peak theatrically in Deutschland, where it bows March 8 and Bleibtreu is big. Wider crossover biz will be reserved for ancillary.

After making the uber-stylish, Hollywood-inspired German vampire pic “We Are the Night,” Teuton helmer Gansel here takes the logical next step and makes a film that’s actually in English, though often “State” feels more like a gritty Europe-U.S. hybrid in the mold of the first “Bourne” film.

After a divorce in Berlin, Paul Jensen (Bleibtreu, reliable as usual) has moved to the Russian capital and taken a job as society-pages editor of Moscow Match, a magazine his late East German father helped shape with his Russian pal Onegin (Rade Serbedzija), who is still its editor-in-chief. Paul’s knowledge of Tolstoy’s lingo and country is terrible, and so the mag’s eager young photographer Duma (German thesp Max Riemelt, speaking English with a mostly convincing Russian accent) becomes his guide to Moscow’s bling-bling nightlife.

Soon enough, Paul witnesses the murder of a respected reporter critical of the Russian regime, and his pretty colleague Katja (Polish model-turned-actress Kasia Smutniak) subsequently loses it when the magazine kills her story on the suspicious circumstances surrounding the journalist’s death. Paul suggests that the piece run as part of his celebrity coverage, as the reporter also worked as a TV presenter.

This seemingly innocent action opens up a Pandora’s box of problems that Gansel, who also wrote the screenplay, translates into an action-packed, double-cross-filled midsection that has the requisite energy but comes up short on originality. Since the pic’s state-terrorism premise is such a firecracker idea, it’s a shame the surrounding elements weren’t conceived with a similar sense of derring-do.

Intricate but never complicated plot runs out of steam toward the end and relies too much on coincidence; the way in which the work done by Paul’s father is shoehorned into the story feels especially contrived. And the fact that all the policemen, shady gangsters and fierce Chechen rebels that Paul comes into contact with all conveniently speak English hurts the otherwise realistic nature of Gansel’s direction and the production design (pic was shot mostly in Ukraine, with some days in Moscow, using a fake script to get the necessary permits).

The gritty look comes courtesy of lenser Daniel Gottschalk’s by now almost standard desaturated camerawork, with its blue and green hues. Heiko Maile’s score similarly sounds as if it knows it’s accompanying a sleek, solid but not exceptional Euro thriller.

The Fourth State

Germany

Production

A Universal Pictures Intl. release and presentation of a UFA Cinema production, in association with Seven Pictures. (International sales: Celluloid Dreams, Paris.) Produced by Thomas Friedl, Nico Hofmann, Nina Maag. Directed, written by Dennis Gansel.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W, widescreen), Daniel Gottschalk; editor, Jochen Retter; music, Heiko Maile; production designer, Matthias Muesse; costume designer, Natascha Curtius-Noss; sound (Dolby Digital), Patrick Veigel; assistant director, Hendrik Holler; casting, Nessie Nesslauer. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (LOLA@Berlinale), Feb. 14, 2012. Running time: 115 MIN.

With

Moritz Bleibtreu, Max Riemelt, Kasia Smutniak, Rade Serbedzija, Stipe Ercig, Reiner Schoene, Mark Ivanir, Cosima Shaw. (English, Russian, German, Chechen dialogue)

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