When Judge Daryl Loomis looks in the mirror, he sees a stylized line drawing.
How the richest man in Russia became its most famous prisoner.
I don't think that anybody really knew what would happen once the Soviet Union collapsed but, in retrospect, it all made sense. The breakup of that corrupted structure, ridden with oligarchs drunk on their power and opportunists who saw the influx of capitalism as a road to new power and wealth, led to the emergence of an equally corrupted quasi-democratic state. For the most part, those in power remained there, with the added ability to cash in on a new, capitalist way of thinking, in which they could thoroughly exploit the nascent free market and make themselves absurdly wealthy.
Though he wasn't in power during the previous regime, the king of these new oligarchs was a man named Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Brought up a scientist, Khodorkovsky and his associates founded the first free market bank in new capitalist Russia, through which he made his first fortune. With this money, he purchased Yukos, a formerly state-owned oil company, for a fraction of its value and, almost immediately, made himself a multi-billionaire. He was the richest man in Russia and one of the twenty richest people in the world when, in 2004, he was arrested and charged with tax evasion.
This story, his subsequent incarceration, and Russian reactions to it are explored in detail in Khodorkovsky, an excellent documentary by German director Cyril Tuschi. Through interviews with friends, family, and associates and expressive line animations, Tuschi looks at the many ways to interpret Khodorkovsky's story.
On the one hand, the man was an oligarch par excellence, exploiting the nation to line his pockets and cared little about who he had to step on to get there. I have little doubt that he committed plenty of crimes to get where he wanted. On the other, unlike many of his counterparts, he had no time for the limousines and wild parties. He lived well below his means and spent massive sums of money on education and other personal causes. He was politically motivated, as well, and staunchly opposed to then-President Vladimir Putin (he is, of course, president once again, but at the time of filming, he was acting Prime Minister) and a big financial supporter of the opposition party. Again, while I am certain he was, in many respects, a criminal, there is plenty of evidence that his arrest was motivated more by political concerns than actual justice. After all, why single Khodorkovsky out when one can be assured that all the other people just like him have and continue to do the same thing?
While the story of Khodorkovsky is mostly told through interviews, Tuschi also makes innovative and interesting use of animations to inject some drama into the proceedings. Whether intentional by the director or not, they remind me of old Soviet agitprop cartoons that I've become familiar with over the years and it's a welcome respite from the fairly standard storytelling. In the beginning, the film seems like a glorifying biography of the man, but as we get to know him more, the intrigue mounts and, finally, it becomes clear that this situation is decidedly unclear. Far be it from me to defend the actions or innocence of an oligarch, but after seeing the story as Tuschi tells it and knowing on a certain level how Vladimir Putin operates the Russian government, it's hard not to wonder whether Khodorkovsky's claims of railroading are true. Even if I have a hard time liking the man, his story definitely makes for an interesting documentary.
Kino's DVD of Khodorkovsky is quite solid. The anamorphic 2.35:1 image looks great, with crisp landscapes and fine detail for a standard definition release. The animations look especially nice, with clear white lines on inky black surfaces. The 5.1 surround sound is equally good. The dialog and music are clear and differentiated, while the animations have booming surround and low-end definition. I don't expect high level technical specs from a documentary and generally won't demerit one for not having them, but I was very pleasantly surprised with what Kino delivers for this film. Unfortunately, the only extras are a stills gallery and a trailer. Disappointing, but the film mostly speaks for itself.
Khodorkovsky starts slow, but gets much more intriguing as the story unfolds. While Tuschi answers a number of the questions he posits, by the end of the film, I am left with more questions than before. It's a conflicting and highly interesting subject that is great food for thought and further study. Recommended.
Quite possibly like the subject, not guilty.
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