Die Vierte Macht (2012)

vt The Fourth State
Germany / 117 minutes / color with bw flashbacks / UFA Cinema, Seven Pictures, UPI Dir: Dennis Gansel Pr: Nina Maag, Thomas Peter Friedl, Nico Hofmann Scr: Dennis Gansel, Florian Schumacher Cine: Daniel Gottschalk Cast: Moritz Bleibtreu, Kasia Smutniak, Max Riemelt, Mark Ivanir, Yevgenij Sitochin, Rade Serbedzija, Dragoş Bucur, Joan Pascu, Michael Bornhütter, Ivan Vrgoc, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Stipe Erceg, Reiner Schöne, Merab Ninidze, Reinhard Friedrich, Wanja Mues, Peter Franke, Daniel Freiman.

A political thriller that’s more noirish than many a neonoir as it picks apart the pretensions of the “new” Russia to reveal the dark, ruthless, evil underbelly. Although this is a German production, most of the dialogue is in (heavily accented) English, with some bits in subtitled Russian.

Much of the movie was filmed in Moscow. Apparently the producers, in order to achieve this, had to supply the authorities with a faked-up screenplay that was less critical of the brutality and corruption of the Russian state apparatus. Even so, for some reason, rather than identify the relevant heads of state as Boris Yeltsin and (especially) Vladimir Putin, the movie chooses to give Russia two fictional presidents during the era in question.

Moritz Bleibtrau as Paul.

It’s 2011, and one-time investigative journalist Paul Jensen (Bleibtreu), disgraced after being discovered to have “improved” an interview, arrives in Moscow from Berlin to take up a post as a party columnist at the celebrity mag Moscow Match—the mag at which his crusading-journalist father Norbert Jensen (Franke) worked in the days when it was a news magazine. Dad died in a car crash back in 2005; now Moscow Match’s publisher, Alexej Onjegin (Serbedzija), and managing editor, Nevsky (Sitochin), welcome him in their different ways, the former as a long-lost nephew, the latter with irascible skepticism.

Rade Serbedzija as Alexej Onjegin.

Paul’s buying himself a sandwich from a street vendor when the customer ahead of him is nonchalantly murdered by a passing assassin. The victim proves to have been prominent TV journalist Jazinsky (Friedrich), who had offended the authorities with his forthright criticism. Even as the secret services under the leadership of an unnamed agent (Bornhütter) are ransacking Jazinsky’s offices, the crime is blamed on terrorists.

Kasia Smutniak as Katja.

Paul is befriended by a colleague of Jazinsky’s, Katja Kapkova (Smutniak), who wants the world to know the truth. He offers to help, although there’s not much he can do as the guy who writes frothy columns about Moscow’s party scene. As you’d expect, Paul and Katja become lovers. When she’s apparently killed in a subway bombing, he’s thrown into the Butyrka Prison on charges that he’s part of the Chechen terrorist gang that organized the atrocity.

Yevgenij Sitochin as Nevsky.

In the prison, whose captives are regularly abused under the command of the brutish officer Lukovich (Pascu)—he looks alarmingly like James Robertson Justice, which made it difficult to register him as the epitome of evil’s banality!—Paul’s befriended by a group of Chechen prisoners headed by Aslan Artynov (Ivanir), a freedom fighter who knew Paul’s dad.

Joan Pascu as Lukovich.

Mark Ivanir as Aslan.

Eventually extracted from jail by Onjegin’s lawyer, Sagalayev (Ninidze), Paul must sign an agreement to the effect that he was well treated and suffered no injustices. But, when the car taking him to the airport takes the wrong route . . .

As will be obvious, this very richly plotted movie falls naturally into three parts, each of about the same length (I think: I didn’t take a stopwatch to them).

The first is obviously the setup, in which we become increasingly aware, as does Paul, that the rules of Russian “democracy” are not the same as those that govern his native Berlin. Prefixed by a scene set in 1998 (thirteen years before Die Vierte Macht’s main action), in which a massive explosion devastates an apartment block that we’ve just seen is populated by young families and children, this section conveys amply the sense that personal disaster is heading Paul’s way.

Peter Franke as Norbert, Paul’s dad.

The second section is almost a self-contained prison movie. Paul does his time in the heavily overcrowded part of Butyrka Prison that’s known as Little Chechnya because of the number of Chechens confined there. He learns the hierarchies among the prisoners and witnesses the brutalities inflicted upon them by the guards and indeed by the system itself. Without the intervention of Aslan, Paul might have died within days of arrival, when attacked by a fellow prisoner.

And in the third section, as Paul and Katja go on the run from the authorities while trying to unearth why they should have been so manipulated and persecuted—in other words, as they try to lay bare for their own and the audience’s benefit the secret crimes that have been driving the plot—we discover there’s no one who can really be trusted. The true, Nineteen Eighty-fourish reality of modern Russia is exposed—a reality that too many western democracies, or at least their leaders, seem intent on trying to emulate.

Kasia Smutniak as Katja.

The most ambiguous of all the characters to be revealed is Alexej Onjegin, whom at the outset we assumed to be one of the good guys and an open book. When the fugitive Paul goes to him in search of help, Alexej is full of sympathy for him . . . but he’s sympathetic, too, toward the Russian government’s policy of perpetrating false-flag atrocities that can be blamed on regional terrorists and used as excuses to invade and tyrannize new territories. He thinks it’s an effective strategy that has been highly beneficial for Mother Russia. And he believes other countries would act the same way, given half the chance:

Onjegin: “You’ll change your tune once it’s your turn. You wait ‘til the first bomb goes off in Berlin. Hoho, you’ll be surprised how quickly things change. Tolerance, open debates, infinite understanding . . . Ach! Forget it! We are at war—a global war, a culture war. We fought one battle here in Russia. Not that we wanted to, but we had no choice.”

In detail, Onjegin’s prediction has failed as yet to come true: Germany has suffered its share of (genuine, not false-flag!) terrorist attacks and has remained remarkably level-headed in the face of them. But, as is underscored in the movie by the appearance several times of an old magazine cover depicting the 2001 attack on the Twin Towers, other countries have indeed responded to the pretext of terrorism with crackdowns on liberties, privacy and all the rest. Next time you’re out and about, just look around at all the CCTV cameras within eyeshot and remember how it wasn’t so very long ago that you’d have been lucky (or unlucky!) if there were any in evidence at all.

Max Riemelt as Dima.

Die Vierte Macht is a chilling piece, reminding us that, whatever we might like to believe, the jackboot of the tyrant is never far away: tyrannies of one kind or another, not free democracies, have been the norm throughout most of human history, and there’s no guarantee democracy will be more than a flicker before the darkness descends once more. This message is brought home in the same way that the horrors of Nineteen Eighty-four are brought home through our identification with the very Everyman and Everywoman characters of Winston Smith and Julia. Here Paul, Katja and their friend Dima (Riemelt), Paul’s photographer colleague, are just ordinary people thrown into a nightmare; through the course of the movie, we identify with them, we become them . . . and they become us.

Parts of the closing credits are rendered as if they were names scrawled on the cruddy cell walls in Butyrka Prison. It’s a nice conceit, and it reminds us that hellhole prisons to incarcerate the innocent aren’t just found in movies.

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