A political documentary that reveals uncomfortable realities in today's Russia premiered this week in Germany. Tight restrictions on international distribution indicate producers have hit a nerve among Russia's elite.
Rublyovka, the Moscow street that serves as both the setting and the title of Irene Langemann's new documentary, is a synonym for wealth, luxury and social divide in modern Russia.
It was there that Josef Stalin placed his lavish dachas in the 1930s and, since then, the 30-kilometer (19-mile) stretch has been home to the Russian upper-class -- and, more recently, the businesspeople and politicians who profited practically overnight from post-communist capitalism.
Current President Vladimir Putin has a home on Rublyovka, where houses go for anywhere from three to $20 million, along with billionaire Roman Abramowitsch and Boris Yeltsin's daughter Tatiana Diatchenko.
That would explain why the street is the most closely guarded place in a country that Langemann said harkens back to Soviet times.
Not only do Putin and company live practically next door to those who didn't have quite as much luck during capitalism's jump-start in the early 1990s, but the poor are essentially being pushed out. As the coveted luxury plots become scarce, there have even been cases of arson when owners of modest homes on the road refused to turn them over to developers.
Director sheds (too much) light on Putin's Russia
Langemann (center right) and her team were constantly hassled by police
It is precisely that juxtaposition that Russian-born filmmaker Irene Langemann set out to capture and convey in her documentary, which was produced by her husband Wolfgang Bergmann's Cologne-based film company Lichtfilm.
Glimpses into the lives of art collector and philanthropist Janna Bullock, fur designer Helen Yarmak, the intelligent and politically skeptical 12-year-old Ermolay Romanov, and other Rublyovka residents on both sides of the social fence take on a politically critical timbre in a country where democracy hangs by a thread.
"The film gives a social portrait of today's Russia, where Putin's 'controlled democracy' is taking on more and more dictatorial undertones," said the Lichtfilm Web site.
Filming burdened by financing, red tape
As is the case with most documentaries, funding was scarce and Bergmann supplemented grants from the North Rhine-Westphalian film foundation, Berlin-Brandenburg Radio and western German broadcaster WDR with 50,000 euros ($73,000) from his own pocket.
Langemann and her film crew spent over half a year obtaining permission from the traffic police, the Kremlin security service, and the secret service -- the successor of the KGB -- to film on Russia's most prestigious site.
They also had to disguise themselves as a purely Russian film team and some scenes had to be filmed with a hidden camera, including an illegal shot of Putin's motorcade pulling out of his residence.
Police harassment, threats and KGB-like treatment continued throughout the filming process, which finally began in May 2006, said Langemann.
Russian millionaire halts film distribution
Film poster: Putin as Napoleon
The real trouble came after the completion of the film, however, when Bergmann and Langemann were approached by Russian millionaire and art collector Alexander Esin.
In a meeting in a café near the Frankfurt airport in September, Esin offered 50,000 euros for the exclusive distribution rights to the film, with the exception of Germany, France, Austria and Switzerland, where the rights had already been bought. He said he wanted to found a documentary channel and thought "Rublyovka" would make an ideal addition.
"No one else would have given me so much money," Bergmann told Spiegel magazine. The film's maker and producer were skeptical, but accepted the lucrative offer.
Instead of distributing the politically delicate film, Esin has put the project on ice. A month later, after "Rublyovka" had met with success at festivals in Munich and Vienna, he demanded distribution rights in the four European countries where they had already been set, offering an additional 300,000 euros and support for Langemann's next three films in Russia.
When his bid was rejected, Esin "turned into a cold snake (…) and said, 'You don't know how difficult it's become in Russia to get permission to film,'" Langemann told Spiegel.
Most Russians don't live like this
Film could damage Putin's popularity
In an e-mail to Lichtfilm, Esin reportedly said he would address the distribution issue in February, which has led to the suspicion that his buying the rights is closely linked to an interest in protecting Putin ahead of the presidential elections on March 2.
Putin, whose two-term limit as president expires then, has already backed the candidacy of his ally Dimitry Medvedev as his successor. The 42-year-old board chairman at gas giant Gazprom and Putin's First Deputy Prime Minister, in turn, offered Putin the post of prime minister if he is elected president.
Images of not only the president's opulent lifestyle but of those he brought to the upper social echelons, paralleled with scenes of poverty and simplicity, could damage Putin's reputation.
"I now have the impression that [Esin] is not independent but has a larger structure behind him," said Langemann, who came to Germany in 1990 shortly before the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Lichtfilm confirmed to DW-WORLD.DE that Esin is not responding to their efforts to contact him and that he has neither promoted nor permitted the showing of the film outside of Germany, France, Austria and Switzerland.
A connection between the roadblock Esin has put on the film and the presidential campaign ties in all too well with Langemann's impressions of her homeland during her stay.
Just as they were during Soviet times, "people are treated like marionettes and not respected as individuals," she said. "A thoroughly corrupt system governs everyday life."