Cyril Tuschi sounds excited and speaks fast. His documentary on Mikhail Khodorkovsky, critic of the Russian government, should have been celebrating its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival on 14 February. But for the last few days the director has had the feeling he’s the lead actor in a movie – and not one he signed up for. "It's like a bad thriller," says Tuschi. Currently staying with friends, he says: "They want to scare me, and I must say they have succeeded."

Behind the curtain of Putin's propaganda machine

Sometime during the night on Friday Tuschi’s production premises in Berlin were torn upside down. Two laptops and two PCs were stolen, and with them went the 111-minute final cut of the film. The police spoke of "highly professional burglars.” This is the second time that computers have been stolen from Tuschi. The last was a few weeks ago in a hotel room in Bali, where the director wanted to put the final touches to his Berlinale entry.

“I’m totally rattled,” Tuschi says. In Russia, the country has been “in the grip of hysteria in the run-up to the premiere". The business daily Kommersant printed on its front page over the weekend a report that the film would have legal consequences for the interviewees. And on Sunday Khodorkovsky's ex-wife Elena, who talks in the film, wrote Tuschi a concerned e-mail: "It was a mistake for you to give an interview to Russian journalists."

Over five years, Cyril Tuschi gathered 180 hours of interviews in Moscow, Tel Aviv, London, New York, Siberia, and Berlin. His film peeks behind the curtain of Putin's propaganda machine and shows how the once richest man in Russia became an opponent of the state and a convict. Interviewees include Khodorkovsky's mother and son living in exile in New York, the former major shareholder of the Yukos oil company, Leonid Nevzlin, and former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. It tells the story of a strange encounter with Russia's then president in Hamburg at which Putin had boasted that the state could swallow Yukos unscathed.

I wanted to make a feature film about Assange, but now...

Even the convict, who will stay in jail until at least 2017, gets in a few words. It was the only real interview with the ex-oligarch in the last seven years and had to be conducted in writing. One day at the trial in Russia, former German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger managed to speak for two minutes with Khodorkovsky, and Tuschi spontaneously asked the judge permission for an interview – and got ten priceless minutes. The interview shows a man who wants to look strong but who also admits: “I had the naive idea that there was justice in Russia.”

Tuschi says he does not believe that the Russian secret service was behind the thefts. "That would be bad style." His Russian interviewees, however, have advised him to ask for personal protection in Germany. They are serious. In the meantime, they themselves have decided not to come to the world premiere in Berlin. That can go ahead as planned. Just a few hours before the burglary Tuschi had sent an earlier cut of the film to the Panorama section of the Berlinale.

Cyril Tuschi, whose Russian-origin parents were also born in Germany, has become more cautious. "I wanted to make a feature film about Assange, actually, but I’m going to drop that for now. I’ll probably make a fantasy film."

Translated from the German by Anton Baer