Reviews and Other Features: Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck Interview

After Abbi’s cool review on The Lives of Others, it reminded me I had an interview from years ago of when I spoke to its Oscar-winning writer/director Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck. It was for a film website that’s no longer around, and happened just before the film was released in the UK, and I wanted to share it with you all.

Oscar photo

For a day so steeped in superstition, it’s during a seemingly innocuous Friday the 13th as Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck, the sensational new talent of The Lives of Others, warmly welcomes me into his business type office.

I’m uncertain as to what I should expect of a man about whom so little is known.  However, his impressive achievements so far more than speak for themselves.  After displaying plenty of promise at the MunichFilmAcademy, he went on to write and direct The Lives of Others which won the coveted Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars.  Critics are widely regarding it as a masterpiece, and the film which dominated the German Film Awards and gained three European Film awards is sure to keep entertaining audiences for generations to come.

It is well documented that Von Donnersmarck had the idea “within a few hours” of listening to a Beethoven piano sonata, about a tense story which centres on a State Security Captain and a hesitatingly rebellious playwright.  Recalling a remark that Lenin once said to a close aid of “Appassaionata”, in which Lenin admitting the effect that particular piece of music held over him, von Donnersmarck decided to write a story with that same principle in mind.

It may not be as graphic an image as an apple falling onto his head but it was a pivotal moment for von Donnersmarck who then spent 18 months researching “until I felt that I really knew enough to fill all the details and to get it all right.”  Candidly admitting he “knew not much at all” about the secret organisation the Stasi before penning the script, his dedication is very much evident. He explains just how important it was for him to discover information about machines that steam open letters and odour samples.

The film’s phenomenal success in East Germany did not surprise him.  “I hoped for it because I’d spent a lot of time researching it.  If it hadn’t of been that positive then it means I’d have done something drastically wrong.” Von Donnermarck is particularly pleased that even those who experienced life under the Stasi regime have conceded that they been forced to look at their experiences differently.

Does he think then that his film will inspire others filmmakers to create their own impressions of the GDR period? After all, films about German history tend to be limited to the Nazi period.  “I think so.  It goes both ways.  It deters and inspires at the same time a little bit.  People of course will be afraid that people will think we’re riding on this success.  Some people will try to ride on this success.  A few people will just say we have this idea independent of this other film.”

Ever the perfectionist, von Donnersmarck admits that he is not 100% happy with the film’s title and even wrote to friends in the hope of finding a better alternative.  “I think it’s a title that’s ok once you’ve seen the film when you know what it’s about.  But you don’t see that poster and read I gotta see that film”.  When I point out though that the title avoids narrowing the film to one person or event, or even Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the year in which the film is set, von Donnersmarck agrees.  Initially intending to call it “Sonata for a Good Man” he opted to change as it seemed “too distant”.  Whilst it’s original title hints at the film’s musical origins, its current name is more in keeping with allowing the audience themselves to contemplate their own ideas of what a hero really is.

This takes us onto the main themes of his film.  He hesitates for a few seconds as he ponders them:  “Change.  Ideology.  Privacy.  What does it do to us when we have no privacy? What does it do to us when we’re subjected to absolute authority? Can we change? How do we strike the right balance between principle and feeling?” For a film that’s main success arguably lies in blurring the perception of who we regard as hero and villain, it is clear that von Donnersmarck endeavoured to provide answers with his film.

Despite spending so long on the screenplay and being able to draw upon such a talented cast, von Donnersmarck had no one particular in mind when writing.  “No.  I try to write without actors in mind because it’s very frustrating if you write with an actor in mind then you don’t get that actor.”  On the musical side it was different though, as von Donnersmarck wrote to the Oscar-winning French composer Gabriel Yared “again and again and again”.  He finally got his answer and when they eventually met, found they got along so well that it seemed only natural for Yared to compose the film’s music.

Living his early life in Berlin and New York, von Donnersmarck mostly lists a wide range of directors as his filmmaking influences growing up.  “Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut, Spielberg (as a child), then later very much Zemeckis.” He also adds Kurosawa, Peter Weir and David Lean.  He aptly chooses ‘The Truman Show’, with its theme of confronting the limits of perception of ones reality, as a favourite recent film along with ‘Groundhog Day’ and ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’.

As the interview comes to a close I ask what his upcoming intentions are.  Where does Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck go from here? “I’ll just take a little time out because we’re having my third child in July.”  As yet he has no fixed plans regarding the concept of his next film, but intends to start writing again in September.  “Probably in English because you can reach more people, probably a drama but certainly nothing to do with the Cold War and Stasi.”

The last remark is said with a laugh.  After spending five years on his film, he is entitled to look back on the whole period with more than a smile.  That apple may never fall on his head, but whatever stories are to come, von Donnersmarck is highly capable of delivering an arrow straight through to the core.

Foreign Favourites Series: Das Leben Des Anderen (2006)

I’ve been delighted at the way my Foreign Favourites series has taken off, and the great standard that has been set by everyone so far. Today’s entry is the very cool Abbi at Where the Wild Things Are, whose site has a neat mix of film reviews and quirky top 10 lists, and sharing delicious recipes (and photos) and writing projects. I’ve been a fan of her site for quite a while now.

The Lives of Others film poster

Das Leben ders Anderen – The Lives of Others (2006)

It’s East Berlin in 1984 and Stasi Agent Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is a skilled interrogator and dedicated member of the Secret Police, who not only works and an investigator but also trains new agents.

After attending the theatre with his friend and more senior colleague, Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), Wiesler suggests that the writer of the play, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) might be someone they should keep an eye on – a sentiment shared by Grubitz’s boss, Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), who happens to want Dreyman’s beautiful actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck) for himself.

Grubitz puts Wiesler on the case and he sets about bugging Dreyman and Christa-Maria’s flat and spending his days and nights listening in on them and their artist friends, because surely if the Minster thinks that Dreyman is up to something, he must be. But as Wiesler starts to uncover the real motivations for the Minister’s scrutiny and becomes ever more fascinated with Dreyman he starts to question himself and his motivations, leading him down a road that will ultimately put all of their lives in jeopardy… because in a country where Big Brother is always watching, anyone could be an enemy of the state.

Wiesler knew it was essential to the GDR's survival to get citizens on board young, but this new partner was a joke!

Wiesler knew it was essential to the GDR’s survival to get citizens on board young, but this new partner was a joke!

There has been a lot of positive buzz around this German thriller since it came out and I have to say that I completely agree with it. Not only are Wiesler, Dreyman and Christa-Maria complex and well-developed characters that it’s easy to become invested in, but Wiesler’s crisis of conscience and confidence in the system he has believed in unquestioningly is an awakening anyone can identify with. Mühe gives a skilled and subtle performance playing a character with such a range of emotions as he has extremely limited dialogue and both Koch and Gedeck are more than competent.

Writer/director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck does an outstanding job of creating a bleak, muted colour palette that reflects the constraints that the GDR places on its residents, preventing them from exploring their creativity and uniqueness which makes it even more impressive The Lives of Others has some seriously nail-biting moments, which kept me at the edge of my seat for its 137 minute run time.

Very highly recommended. 5/5

My thanks to Abbi for such a good review. I saw it when it came out at the cinema and echo her thoughts. It really is a magnificent film and a great selection for the series.