Russian Film Body Denies Funds to WWII Movie, Fueling Claims of Ideological Bias

Insiders say the Russian ministry's abrupt decision not to provide its share of funding for a Russia-Germany co-production is endangering movie cooperation between the two countries.

MOSCOW – Russia's ministry of culture has refused to provide government funds to a controversial war movie despite the film already having won the backing of its own cinema experts and German public funding.

The film, Dear Hans, Dear Pyotr, by director Aleksandr Mindadze, has raised nearly two-thirds of its $4 million budget from private Russian and Ukranian sources and German public money, including Germany's Federal Film Fund and regional funds Berlin-Brandenberg and Leipzig-based MDM. But local insiders say the Russian government's abrupt move to deny its share of the funding could threaten future co-productions between the two countries. 

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The film was among the most popular projects at last week's two-day ministry of culture pitching session in Moscow. Based on a true story about a friendship between two men -- one Russian, one German -- it tells the story of their love for the same woman, which gets put to the ultimate test when Nazi Germany invades Russia in 1941. 

Twelve feature projects were approved for a share of a total of $73 million made available via the ministry of culture this year. The sessions were the first ever held in public -- an attempt to make the process more transparent and counter past allegations of corruption and nepotism.

But the decision to deny Mindadze's film funding, which critics say was a personal decision of minister of culture Vladimir Medinsky, appears to have exposed the "open" process as a sham.

"Many participants and observers of the [ministry of culture expert] commission came to the conclusion that the decision for Mindadze's film was an ideological one," influential radio station Ekho Mosvky reported on Monday.

The film is set just prior to and following the outbreak of war between Russia and Germany in 1941. It details the story of Hans, a German engineer who travels to Moscow to work on a project with Pyotr at a time when Germany and the Soviet Union were united by a non-aggression pact -- the notorious Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact.

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Hitler's deliberate decision to breach the pact and invade Russia in July of 1941 changed the course of the war and world history, turning Stalin against the Nazis.

The non-aggression pact, which worked until the very eve of war with Russian shipments of foodstuffs and raw materials essential to the German war effort continuing until combat began, was swiftly consigned to history and to this day is rarely mentioned during Russia's lavish annual commemoration of "Victory Day," marking the end of the war and triumph over Nazi Germany on May 9, 1945.

That context makes Mindadze's film a controversial one in the ideological atmosphere of today's Russia, run by a president, Vladimir Putin, who served in the Soviet-era secret police, and with a minister of culture whose books on the history of Russia have concentrated on accusing the West of inventing negative historical stereotypes about "lazy and drunken" Russians.

The decision to deny the film public funding in Russia threatens future cooperation with Germany, said Simone Baumann, the Russia representative for German Films, the umbrella banner for Germany public film funding bodies.

"We simply don't understand what is going on, as it seems the Russian side is not keeping its word," Baumann told The Hollywood Reporter.

"Initially, the film was supported by everyone in Russia -- including officials of the ministry of culture. But now it turns out the Russian side is not interested in the project.

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"There seems to be no rational reason for this lack of interest. It is a very promising project. But German public funds will not support a project that apparently is of no interest to the country of its origin. That is scandalous and deals a real blow to the reputation of Russian cinema."

The decision is likely to make German public film funders think twice about involvement in a Russian project in the future, she added.

The film's German co-producer, Heino Deckert, who co-produced Russian director Sergei Loznitsa's first two features, My Joy and wartime-set In the Fog, dubbed the decision a "tragedy" and said he might never work with on a Russian project again.

"The film will not be made if the Russians do not fund it -- it is a majority Russian co-production. This decision destroys more than two years of work."

Both he and the director had invested a lot of time and money in the project and had been led to believe it would receive backing from the Russian state funds, he said, adding that 19 out of 21 film experts on the culture ministry pitching commission had backed it.

As a producer used to working with western standards, the decision made it "impossible to work [further] in Russia," he added.

Mindadze preferred not to comment in further detail on Monday as he hoped the ministry would reconsider its decision, but added his key concern was the impact the decision could have on future cultural relations between Russia and Germany.

In earlier comments he said the film was not about politics but the power of war to turn love into hate.

The controversy stoked in Russia might yet cause an official rethink: A group of the ministry-appointed film experts who supported the film penned a dissenting opinion and wrote to Medinsky on Monday urging that he review the decision.

Projects that did receive ministry support include: Kirill Serebrennikov's film Tchaikovsky, about the last five days in the life of the famous composer; Vera Glagoleva's Two Women, based on a classic Russian novel that stars Ralph Fiennes; and Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviafan.