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“A messiah for Russia”

German director Cyril Tuschi embarked on a perilous five-year journey to explore the rise and fall of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. We spoke to the director during this year's Berlinale. The film hits cinemas on Nov 17.

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NOVEMBER 2011: Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky could have limited his ambitions to being Russia’s richest man (after Putin?). But he wanted more, and that included playing philanthropist and preaching the gospels of democracy – a threat to all-mighty czar Vladimir Putin. German film director Cyril Tuschi embarked on a perilous five-year journey to explore the rise and fall of the oil tycoon: the transformation of Russia’s biggest capitalist into one of the world’s most famous political prisoners.

FEBRUARY 2011: Early Friday morning (February 4), the offices of the Berlin filmmaker Cyril Tuschi were broken into and vandalised. The latest version of his film about the famous imprisoned Russian oligarch Khodorkovsky was stolen. The film will premiere on February 14 during the 2011 Berlinale. We talked to Tuschi about the risks of filming a portait of Russia’s biggest challenger to Putin’s regime.

FEBRUARY 2011: Moscow, December 2010. Russia’s most successful businessman has just been sent back to his cell in a Siberian prison for another six years, adding to the eight he has already spent behind bars. His crime? Vanity, some would say. Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky could have limited his ambitions of becoming Russia’s richest man. Thanks to his takeover of Yukos Oil Company in the 1990s, he became the world’s wealthiest person under 40, and a friend to the rich and powerful (from George Bush Jr. to Bill Gates). But he wanted more, and that included playing philanthropist and preaching the gospels of democracy – a threat to all-mighty tsar Putin. German film director Tuschi became fascinated with Khodorkovsky on a trip to Russia, and embarked on a five-year journey to explore his subject.

The result is a documentary that patiently reconstructs – through first-hand witnesses and his correspondence with Khodorkovsky – the rise and fall of an oligarch: the transformation of Russia’s biggest capitalist into one of the world’s most famous political prisoners. The film premieres at this year’s Berlinale.

How do you feel just after the break-in?

I’m in shock. It’s the second time it happened. The first version was already stolen while I was in Bali. I have to redo the whole film version with the subtitling from scratch again. I was advised by my lawyer and the police to stay away from my apartment which is right next to my office. I know I am naive but I think I will be sleeping at a friend’s place.

Your last film was a road movie. How did you embark on such a difficult and dangerous project?

It all started in Siberia at the film festival in Khanty-Mansiysk. I was invited there in 2006 for my last film Slight Changes in Temperature and Mind (Sommer-HundeSöhne). When I arrived I was shocked: the city was so rich and yet so empty. I asked them why and they said Khodorkovsky financed it before he went to prison. The richest man, who challenged Putin and got thrown into prison. I wanted to make a fictional film immediately.

Your film opens with some youths who ask what you’re doing. When you say it’s a film about Khodorkovsky they object, “Why do want to make a film about a thief who took money from people?!!” At best he was a tycoon who hung out with George Bush. Why did you get infatuated with such a shady character?

He is a riddle. He’s not the classic oligarch. I liked the contradictions. And I like when people behave in a non-linear way. There was that big aura about him, and he did something that was illogical: he had more than one chance to leave the country and stay in America with tons of money. Instead he returned to Russia and let them put him in prison. And I thought, why? Even his enemies don’t understand it. This I wanted to explore.

Everyone knows how perilous it is to do investigative journalism in Russia. How difficult was it?

If I had known how difficult it would be, I would have stopped immediately. For the first year no one wanted to talk to me. That was very frustrating and I even took it personally. But I’m more like a long-distance runner.

Were people afraid to speak out? Were you afraid?

That was a big issue in the beginning – and it got bigger and bigger. When it came to Khodorkovsky, everyone was afraid. I was afraid, normal people were afraid. Rich people feared losing their money. People in the government feared they would get in trouble. So the whole country is or was in fear. For me that was new. Fear as the main motor. But somehow I lost my fear almost completely. Maybe I got used to it. Or I learned the rules of communication, of how to deal with things. But fear is also necessary for survival, so it’s not good to lose all fear. It’s like an instinct. If you lose it you get numb.

When you contact opposition leader Yavlinksy, he warns you: “You want to know what I think ‘honestly’. If you want something honest, don’t make a film about Khodorkovsky. In Russia you want something honest, make a film about the landscape.”

Yeah. He said, “I know everything, but I cannot tell you anything.”

But then you manage to make people talk – sometimes surprisingly openly. Like Khodorkovsky’s cellmate.

That’s a special case: I interviewed many other cellmates. They had no teeth, no brains, to be honest. So when I saw him, I suspected that he was an actor playing a role for me. My editor thought he was KGB. I’m not sure, and never will be.

What was your most rewarding catch?

That was Khodorkovsky’s main partner Leonid Nevzlin. It took me two years before I was able to fly to Tel Aviv and meet him. He is now the major shareholder of what was left when Yukos was auctioned off. Still approximately $3 billion. Khodorkovsky gave his shares to Nevzlin. So Nevzlin is taking care of that through a British lawyer and now only works in charity. He and other minority shareholders are suing the Russian state for $100 billion.

Regarding fact and fiction, you have Nevzlin explain on camera that he and Khodorkovsky are simple, Soviet-minded people who always lived below their means. Then you have that shot of him and his glamorous wife in high heels. Absolutely. I wanted to show the ambivalence. Nevzlin wants to appear like that, but that’s not the reality. Everyone has this ambivalence. With Khodorkovsky, the contrast is only higher.

You met with his first wife, but there’s nothing about his current wife and kids.

Is it so obvious? He has two very young twin boys and a girl. I tried to meet her during the first three years, but she always had migraines and was depressed. She was protected by Khodorkovsky himself. I finally met her after the shooting was finished, in the courtroom. My battle to get an interview with her was over and we chatted.

Speaking of ambiguous characters, what about the ex-KGB man and Khodorkovsky sidekick Aleksei Kondaurov? His apparent openness is pretty amazing.

He’s very intelligent. He’s also a riddle to me. He’s both a communist deputy and was working for Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky, Russia’s biggest capitalist, believed in communism and financed not only the liberals but also the Communists. It’s all contradictory but apparently possible in Russia.

And that ambiguity seems to go right to the top. Putin surrounds himself with all these rich guys, some of whom are pretty critical of him, but nothing happens to them. At what point did Khodorkovsky cross the line?

I can’t tell. He had more and more influence. And he was a political competitor. To me the bottom line is: he was betterlooking and he had more money. Period.

Then when things start to go wrong, Khodorkovsky doesn’t even act afraid or apologetic, he doesn’t flee. Instead he appears on TV with his moral uprightness. That’s the worst thing he could do, right?

It’s a question of pride. Dogs eat dogs: Putin was the stronger dog, the other dog should have made a gesture of obedience and he didn’t do that.

Do you think his wealth went to his head, that he felt too invincible?

I suppose so. I you’re the richest guy and everybody is courting you like that, why should you always be scared and cautious? Plus he wanted to step out of the Kremlin-backed mafia system. He was clean and wanted to become independent, play by market standards. This wish to be really free was the scary thing for Putin. That’s really symbolic.

In your film, Khodorkovsky comes across as a tragic hero: someone who stands by his own moral principles no matter the price. He’s kind of a martyr, and Russia loves martyrs.

Absolutely! He even thought of himself as a messiah for Russia. That he could save the whole country. That’s Tolstoyan… That’s also Jewish. The Jewish Messiah. So he rejects his Jewishness, but, on the other hand, accepts it.

How important is the fact he is Jewish in the whole story?

To me it was very important. Everyone knows that 90 percent of the businessmen are Jewish and that is why anti-Semitism is so commonplace in Russia. The whole internet is full of anti-semitic comments about Khodorkovsky. It’s really ugly.

Is he still as unpopular?

It changed a bit now that he’s in prison, and that’s maybe a bit of a strategy. That’s what Swiss-French financial consultant Cristian-Michel said: the longer he’s in prison, the cleaner his mind and outer appearance will become.

He goes as far as saying that Khodorkovsky’s acceptance of Putin’s wrathful punishment was a gambit – “he sacrificed his queen to win the game.” Could that be true? Could his new aura as a political prisoner redeem his past sins? Opposition leader Yashin even says Khodorkovsky has a great political future.

Yes, as a symbol. I was actually afraid that Putin would hear that comment. Khodorkovsky’s position in the opposition is so high already that such a comment could have him locked up forever, so I am kind of relieved the film is coming out after the verdict.

So you were aware of the fact that people could be put at risk?

I had many sleepless nights. I wasn’t always sure, I had to remind myself that these are real people; the line between truth and fantasy felt so blurry.

In your film you use 3D computer animations, like when you depict the raid on Khodorkovsky’s plane. Oddly original coming from Russia, where violent shooting games are so popular. How did you decide on that?

I wanted to show something that happened with no witnesses and I thought I had to do something naturalistic but also abstract. I wanted a cut-out look, but with more depth, so we did it with 3D.

A big part of the voice-over narration is comprised of your letters to him in prison and his replies.

Only 10 or 20 percent of the letters are in the film. My mother told me to put much more letters in, and I said this was not a radio piece! What he wrote back was really great. I tried first without help but never got an answer. The only way is to send your letter to Anton Drel, his main lawyer, and he sends it over to the other lawyers, they walk in and ask Khodorkovsky the questions orally. Khodorkovsky listens to them, goes back to his cell, thinks for a while and then tells them the answers. They write down his answers, send them to London and Drel sends it to me. It’s the only way. Even his son communicates with him like that. He wrote articles while in prison using the same technique.

He must meet his lawyers a lot.

Every day. He sees the lawyers more than the family, who he sees twice a month, I think. He hasn’t seen his son Pavel for five years, because he told him not to come back. He’s scared that he will be drafted into the army and punished.

A lot of people thought he would have special conditions in prison, but he doesn’t. How does it work?

He doesn’t have phone or email there. He has a television, so when Putin says something, he sees that. He’s under 24-hour video surveillance. He has a cellmate, often someone who is promised an early release if they retrieve information from Khodorkovsky.

In the courtroom in Chita you finally get to talk to him – how did you manage that?

I was so happy. I never expected to interview him, because everyone told me it was impossible. The German justice minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger was able to talk to him for five minutes, and I went to the judge and asked if I could too. He said, “We never do journalists.” I argued that I’m not a journalist, I’m a filmmaker. He said, “Okay, make a written application.” That’s what I did and, surprisingly, one day later, we got 10 minutes. My theory is that, because it was in the middle of the second trial, he didn’t have a 100 percent waterproof directive about what to do with people like me.

It must have felt very special to finally talk to the character you’d been working on for four years?

Absolutely. But the weird thing is that when they said I could do it, I didn’t know what to ask. The biggest thing that shocked me was that he was so centered, so calm.

But then you asked very sharp questions and he gave amazingly sharp answers. It all felt surreal, like a film. He’s all zen, collected, and precise. I was thinking his new role model is Mandela: the wise man of Russia.

Yeah, he’s on his way. He’s also like [Garry] Kasparov, like a chess player. Really conscious of what he’s doing. Self-aware.

Medvedev came to power with the promise to reform everything. How comfortable can he feel with a high-profile political prisoner in Siberia?

With this verdict, his role has become clear. All the fears that he was only a puppet are now confirmed.

He allowed the last stage of the trial to be brought to Moscow. Wouldn’t it have been more clever to keep him in faraway Siberia?

There are two theories. One is about image: to make theatre that has the resemblance of normal court. To let people come in, to make a show of openness. The other thing is that they feared that the district court in Siberia is maybe too independent from the power of the Kremlin.

And yet the charges were so absurd, it could never look like a real trial.

I always thought: who is the mastermind? If there is a mastermind, it’s a crazy mastermind. My guess is that they just let it go so everyone sees it’s bullshit, which shows us an even higher power. Like, we can make bullshit, but still have it under control. We don’t even have to fake it.

Are you really planning to show the film in Russia?

I don’t know how, but yes. I even applied for a new visa. Hopefully it will work. I think the FSB (successor to the KGB) will book the first row.

Khodorkovsky opens in Berlin on November 17.