BEFORE THE ENVELOPE . . .                                           AFTER THE ENVELOPE . . .

The "Other" Lives Of Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck

For the Director of "The Lives Of Others" The Road To Gold Is Paved With Oscar

By Omar P.L. Moore/

April 1, 2007

Before photo: The director on February 24 at the Academy Of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences' Foreign Language Film Nominees Symposium  in Los Angeles (Photo: Omar P.L. Moore)
After photo: The director with golden companion on February 25, backstage at the 79th Annual Academy Awards after winning the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (Photo: AMPAS)

It was several months ago on a late January evening at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck was entertaining prior journalists with his Russian language speaking abilities.  He had been interviewing all day long and had an infectious energy level.  Calm, mannered and pleasant, he greeted the interviewer with a warm smile.  A gentle giant at six-foot-five, the German-born Von Donnersmarck is loquacious, philosophical and endlessly sanguine.  He speaks both German and English with equally astounding fluency.  He was born in Cologne in 1973 and grew up in New York City, Berlin, Frankfurt and Brussels.  He studied Russian at the National IS Institute in what is now called St. Petersburg, formerly Leningrad.  Florian went off to Oxford University, where he enrolled in political science, philosophy and economics, before turning to film and working as a production assistant on Richard Attenborough's "Love And War".  At Munich's prestigious Academy of Film and Television he wrote and directed numerous short films, garnering several awards.

On this particular January evening in 2007 it is fully three weeks before his film "Das Leben Der Anderen" ("The Lives Of Others"), the German-language film about the Stasi (Communist Germany's secret police) and its waning influence over the German citizenry as the German Democratic Republic enters its last years in the country during the mid-1980's, to its aftermath in the early 1990's, is set to open in San Francisco (it would open in New York and Los Angeles on February 9.)  The 2006 European Film Award-winning film (and later Oscar-winning film) has since opened in numerous cities around the world.

Gracious and enthusiastic, Florian -- as he has requested to be called -- thanks his interviewer and patiently awaits questions.  When they are asked he informs his questioner that he is impressed with the inquiries -- which is part of the generosity he exhibits.  (Later he will jokingly accuse his questioner of being a Stasi member, saying that the individual's retention for names, places and faces was "Stasi-like.")

"Before I even wrote the first line of dialogue, I researched it for about one and a half years and then I kept researching while I was writing for another one and a half years and then it took about another year until we were shooting, so it was four years before we started shooting and then one year to finish the entire film, so five years in total," the director said.

When watching the richly-layered film it is a refreshingly adult story of a prominent couple who are two of the Republic's most loyal servants.  Georg (played by Sebastian Koch) is a writer and Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck) is a stage actor, and both enjoy unprecedented popularity.  The Stasi decides to commence surveillance of the couple, with its lead inspector Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe in the best performance by any actor -- man or woman -- this year) intently listening to their every word.  The two hour-and-27-minute film depicts the transformation of its three main characters and is destined to become a classic years from now.  The film would go on to become the biggest surprise at the 79th Annual Academy Awards in February by winning the Best Foreign Language Film of 2006 (it opened last December for just one week in New York and Los Angeles strictly for Academy Award consideration -- and "Pan's Labyrinth" was the favorite to win the Foreign Language Film Oscar.)   The director paid tribute to his wife during his acceptance speech for the film when he won the Oscar on February 25.  With the music beginning to play him off the stage, Florian said, "no -- I have to say this one more thing.  Just that one more thing: Christiane, I love you."

When your life is not your own: Sebastian Koch as Georg Dreymann and Martina Gedeck as Christa-Maria Sieland in "Das Leben Der Anderen" ("The Lives Of Others"), directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.  (Photo: Hagen Keller via Sony Pictures Classics)

"The Lives Of Others" opened in Germany in March 2006 to a reception that Florian described as "extremely good".  "One of the first films that did as good in the east (of the country) as it did in the west," said the director.  "For me what is important for me on a film like [this] is that none of the people who put money in it you know, lost any money.  They made money.  That's important for me because that way, you know, they'll trust me if I tell them, 'let's make another one like that'.  But anything beyond that, it doesn't matter to me how much profit they make -- what matters to me is that they make a profit . . . just so much so that they say 'okay, we'll let you do your next project in total freedom again.'"

Perhaps one other reason Florian is unconcerned with a huge profit is that "Das Leben Der Anderen" (its original German title) is his feature film-directing debut.  When watching the film, the direction is so self-assured, confident and mature that one would have no idea that its helmer was only 33 years of age.  Florian also wrote the film.  (At the Academy Of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences' Symposium for Foreign Language Film Nominees Symposium in Beverly Hills on February 24, the day before he would win the Oscar for the film, Florian told the audience and panel of fellow nominees that he couldn't see himself directing something that he hadn't written.  A statement like that smacks of a certain smugness or arrogance, but when Florian utters it he exhibits a strong belief and genuine confidence.  Florian has a keen idea of what he wants to do -- and what he doesn't want to do.)

"The Lives Of Others" was spawned, Florian said, from a singular image in his mind.  He had read a book by Russian writer Maxim Gorky (who was a close friend of Russian leader Lenin.)  As the director recalls it, Lenin had told Gorky that A Passionata by Beethoven, was his favorite piece of music, "'but I'm not going to listen to it anymore because it makes me want to stroke people's heads and tell them sweet stupid things, but I have to smash in those heads, bash them in without mercy in order to finish my revolution,'" he said.  "And I thought, ' . . . could I somehow maybe construct a situation for a film, could I somehow come up with something where Lenin would be forced to listen to the A Passionata just as he would be getting ready to smash in somebody's head?" 

Florian's scenario instantly conjures up an image of violence, and while "Lives" contains one or two moments of violence, it is not nearly as graphic as the director's thought process would have the reader believe.

"How could I force somebody to listen to music that he doesn't want to listen to?"

Then, the image came to Florian: a man in a depressing room with earphones on his head, thinking that he would be listening to conversations of the enemies he is spying on but is instead listening to beautiful music.  "And so from that image, I then just started to [say], 'well what does that image mean?'  And suddenly then within two hours I just developed the entire story."

Ulrich Muhe in a brilliant performance as Gerd Wiesler, a Stasi surveillance officer who spies upon a revered writing and acting couple in Germany during the reign of theSocialist Unity Party, in "The Lives Of Others" ("Das Leben Der Anderen").  The role won Mr. Muhe a Silver Bear Best Actor Award at the 2006 Berlin Film Festival.  (Photo: Hagen Keller via Sony Pictures Classics)

Florian spoke of the Stasi's influence in Germany.  As a young boy in West Germany he caught glimpses of the Stasi's power and fear mongering.  At the time, the Party Chairman of the GDR (German Democratic Republic) was Erich Honecker.  "I'd seen how scared my mother was when she was interrogated by them and strip-searched by them," Florian said.  "And I'd seen how scared our relatives in the East were when they were seen talking to us, because we were clearly to be identified as westerners.  And of course we were damaging their careers by even talking to them.  Because somebody would inform the Stasi that, 'look these people were visited from these people from the West again.'"  The Stasi had been delving into the private affairs of Germans for a long time, and it was a more than frequent occurrence.  The actor Ulrich Muhe himself had been spied on by the Stasi and during the filming of "Lives" Muhe surprised Florian by showing the director the file that the Stasi had compiled on him.

While the director says that the film isn't based any singular personal incidents in his or his family's lives, he acknowledged that in every film a director is telling a story that reflects in part their own experiences.  "Wes Craven couldn't make a horror film if he wasn't really scared of monsters, you know."  But the bottom line for the director is that "The Lives Of Others", or "Das Leben Der Anderen" if you prefer, is about universal experiences.  "Everybody knows what it feels like to have your privacy invaded.  Everybody knows what it feels like where people want you to believe something that you don't want to believe.  Everybody knows what it feels like to be asked tobetray someone.  All these kinds of things.  Those are common things.  I think everybody's experienced social injustice." 

In today's Germany, the director cites Berlin as an important factor in the seamless nature of the unification of the country post-1989.  "I'm no longer capable of telling who's from the east and who's from the west -- in our generation."  However, Florian did criticize a figure from the past, the country's former Chancellor Helmut Kohl for initially causing a consternation for the economy when Kohl had promised big celebrations of the recent unification, only to see the costs for it spiral out of control and affect other financial variables that made an already volatile economy more unstable.  "It was an economy that kept itself afloat by selling off political prisoners to the West -- you know that was one of their biggest sources of income -- selling tens of thousands of political prisoners."

Florian delves into a discussion about moral relativism, which concludes with the following statement: "Take a person who really hates you -- and I'm sure you have enemies like I do -- you know, it's not so hard to understand where they're coming from."  He laughs. 

Film score composer Gabriel Yared, who initially scored music for "The Lives Of Others" wrote the score for the film before one single frame of it was filmed.  Mr. Yared typically works in this fashion.  Music, the director says, naturally conjures up imagery in the mind.  "If [Yared] sees an actual image on screen and then composes music to match that it's almost as if he's making images to images that are already there."  Florian revealed that his "intense conversations with him about the music . . . actually helped me discover some aspects of the film that I wouldn't have otherwise."  Incidentally, Yared's score for the film "Troy" (which the composer worked on for over a year) was rejected, after which, Florian recalls, Yared swore that he'd never do film score work for Americans again. 

"But now he's calmed down a bit," Florian half-jokes.

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2007.  All Rights Reserved.


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