Part of Germany becomes Russian territory for a film

The Elbe Valley of Germany is a long, long way from Russia, but with a few deft changes, it feels uncannily like the real thing on a spring morning to Maxime Mardoukhaev as filming of the movie The Last Station continues.

Mardoukhaev, 48, a great-grandson of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), has been retained as an historical adviser by the filmmakers to ensure that nothing un-Russian in this unspoiled corner of Germany mars the film about Tolstoy's death in rural Russia.

Two international film stars, Christopher Plummer, 78, of Canada and Helen Mirren, 62, of Britain play Tolstoy and his wife.

"When I see them in costume, I feel like saying 'Good morning, Grandma, good morning, Grandpa'," said Mardoukhaev, who is one of hundreds of descendants of the couple alive today. "But I am a little sad the film cannot be shot in Russia."

A condition of German government film-promotion grants for the project was that all the jobs had to be created in Germany.

Since it would breach the financial terms to send the crew to Russia, Russia has instead come to Germany, with locations in four eastern German states altered to look as Russian as possible.

"It really does look awfully like Russia here," said Mardoukhaev at Pretzsch, a river town halfway between Wittenberg, where Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation, and Torgau, where Soviet and US troops linked up in 1945 to seal Nazi Germany's defeat.

Plummer, who played Captain von Trapp in the 1965 classic movie The Sound of Music and who has travelled in Russia, agreed: "It's very like Russia here, with the woods and the verdant nature."

Pretzsch is on the fertile floodplain of the Elbe, a river which rises in the Czech Republic and flows into the North Sea.

The Last Station, about the Tolstoys' marriage dispute in the last year of his life, before he died at 82, is based on a 1990 novel of the same title by Jay Parini. Tolstoy, author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, had a long row with his wife Sofia Andreyevna.

The movie producers originally hoped to recruit Anthony Hopkins and Meryl Streep to play the storming couple, but settled for Plummer and Mirren. She, it turns out, has Russian ancestry.

A German company, Egoli Tossell Film Halle, is producing the 13- million-euro (20-million-dollar) film to a script by Michael Hoffman, who is also directing.

The Last Station of the movie title is a remote stop on a railway where Tolstoy died of pneumonia.

The opening scene is being shot on a green field on the railway line outside Pretzsch. Dozens of men and women in period dress are at the ready. The men are wearing thick black boots, thick coats and fur hats. The woman wear long skirts and scarves or hats.

A young woman from the film crew explains to the extras what they have to do, "You've got to run to the fifth carriage. Tolstoy will come to the door. He'll tell you to quieten down."

As the film begins, Tolstoy and Sofia are travelling back to Moscow by train. The train is halted by a crowd of admirers - students and peasants - and journalists want to interview the great man.

"This is a film about their love," says the enthusiastic great- grandson, who directs films himself and is keeping a sharp eye out for "goofs" - anything in the picture that could be an anachronism or could not exist in Russia.

Set for release in a year's time, The Last Station depicts the aged novelist and the love of his life arguing about the rights to the royalties from his works after he dies.

Tolstoy, the giant of Russian literature, wants to leave the rights to "the people." Sofia demands the rights to support herself and their children. Tolstoy has gone on a rail journey to get away and falls seriously ill in the small town.

The railway station in Pretzsch is one of Germany's sleepiest: only 10 local trains stop here every day. It has closed completely for two weeks during the filming and has become the Last Station, completely Russified with Cyrillic signs and Russian equipment.

The black steel-framed bed in which the film Tolstoy dies has been set up inside.

Russian timetables hang on the wall, Russian typewriters stand on the desks.

A German couple living in an upstairs apartment at the station have to switch on their lights in the daytime because their windows have been boarded over. The apartment windows looked too modern and had to be concealed from the cameras, dpa reported.

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