There are a few things that may immediately strike you about German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, creator of the Oscar-nominated East German espionage drama The Lives of Others:
The first is obviously the length of his name, which would be a 53-point Scrabble word without any bonuses if you could even find a board that could accommodate it, let alone be able to play more than 7 letters and use proper names. The second is that the man is a giant, not just tall or “big-boned”, but he’s reportedly 6′ 8″ which allows him to tower over everyone even when sitting down for an interview.
The third and most important thing about Florian (as we’ll call him to retain our sanity) is that he has made an amazing film, one that has been hailed for its insightful look into pre-reunification Germany and the techniques used by the East German government’s state police (AKA the Stasi) to keep its artistic community under control. It wasn’t too surprising when Florian’s film was nominated as one of only five foreign films to make the cut for the Oscars, continuing Germany’s run in recent years of fine historic dramas.
“It’s hard to describe your own film,” Florian said during a recent interview with ComingSoon.net, when asked by a fellow journalist if he saw his film as a political thriller. “The distributor in Germany offered me the first shot at cutting my own trailer and I thought about it and then said ‘No, you go ahead and do it’ because it’s so hard to sell your own product and see what would be commercially appealing about it.”
Since his film deals with a famous playwright and what happens when he’s put under surveillance by a high-ranking rival trying to steal his actress girlfriend, Florian discovered some interesting things about how writers fit into the former East Germany. “A writer in the GDR was to the Stasi the most dangerous creature of all,” he told us. “They actually had a very unusual system. It’s quite complicated, but I think it’ll give you some idea how the Stasi operated with artists. They knew that once a writer became famous, he was almost untouchable. They couldn’t really do anything serious to him without provoking so much protest in the East and in the West. What they tried to do is they tried to find and target artists and writers who were not yet famous. They’d use schools as informers on who was writing what kind of poetry that may be interesting. They’d find some 20-year-old guy who’d written some poems, so the Stasi would arrest him and put in jail for five years, after which, this person would not feel the need to write again. They’d get them while he was young, destroy the talent and ambition, and the loss was never noticed, because nobody else knew that this guy would have become a major writer. The strange thing that happened from this was that the writers that became known and famous felt that they had done so without any contact from the Stasi, but actually, they had been very carefully selected by the Stasi, because everyone else had been weeded out. The strange thing is that even the ones that were the most dissident among the famous writers were actually very moderate.”
“It was really quite a challenge to recreate that,” he said about recapturing East Germany as it was 30 years ago. “I sometimes think it would have been easier to make a film that was set three hundred years in the past, because visually you at least have entire building complexes that are still maintained in a certain historic authenticity. As it is, we had to look quite far except for things like the Stasi offices and archives because we shot on original locations. We were the first film team ever to shoot in the real Stasi archives and offices, and that was quite exciting.”
“Everything was under state control and it had to be depressing, even visually,” he continued. “The whole way that they didn’t have any full-functioning colors. I once talked to a chemist who explained to me the reason for this was there were certain patents that they couldn’t get in the Eastern Bloc for the production of colors, so they couldn’t make those bright blues and reds. They always had these really desaturated colors and I worked pretty hard to reconstruct those in the film.”
As hard as Florian worked to recreate the look of the times, it was easier than the fact-finding mission he went on before writing the screenplay. “The research was quite an emotional rollercoaster ride, because one day I’d be talking to a person who’d tell me in tears everything that they’d suffered in these prisons. The next day I’d spend the entire day in the apartment of one of their torturers. I really felt that it was important to be careful of sides, simply because I didn’t want to make a propaganda film for either side. I just wanted to know that I had heard both sides. Sometimes I felt a little hypocritical listening to these Stasi people and making them feel like I was more on their side than I really was, but that’s something I know that journalists have to do all the time.” (Boy, he nailed us dead to rights!) “I think you always have the consolation as a journalist if you’re listening to someone telling you something you don’t agree with, you’re going to have the last laugh because you’re the one writing the article. You don’t have to give people that immediate feedback in that second. I can tell myself that too, that my final comment is going to be the film.”
Since Florian had spent so much time in East Germany making the movie, we wondered if he had encountered any of the former Stasi officials and what they’ve been up to. “I think these people have adapted pretty well,” he admitted. “The only thing the former Stasi employees are not allowed to do is they’re not allowed to work for the state officially. Everything else they’re free to do, especially the high-ranking people have fallen onto their feet. They don’t suffer from the consequences of what they did. I think there were in total under 20 sentences; 20 people were condemned to some sort of prison time for crimes committed within the Stasi. That’s really not very many if you consider that there were 300,000 employees of this organization.”
Before making The Lives of Others, Florian had made a number of short films over the years, but even before then, he had the opportunity to work as a production assistant on Richard Attenborough’s 1996 film In Love and War, which had a major impact on the filmmaker’s life. “I remember when I arrived on his set for the first time–I had won this place in an essay competition while at Oxford–but I was very excited because I’d never been on a film set or in a film studio before, and suddenly, I was going to Shepperton Studios for the shoot of this major New Line picture with Sandra Bullock and Chris O’Donnell. I walked into this studio and there was this amazing lighting arrangement by Roger Pratt and the production design by Stuart Craig, and it was so impressive to see this. I was like one of those little geese that hatched and the first thing they see is their mommy, and they follow it no matter what happens. I was like that and I said, ‘This is the standard that I will accept and I will go no lower than this ever.’ It seemed like quite a crazy thing to resolve at the time, but I’ve really tried to stick to that. This is the level of professionalism that I will not go lower than.”
Florian also got some great insights into working with actors from the legendary British filmmaker. “It was a very interesting experience watching him because he’s such an actor’s director and from him, I really learned that when you get to the shoot, when you’re on set, it should really only be about the actors. Everything else is secondary at that point. You have to try and prepare as much beforehand, but when the shooting starts, he’s there only for the actors.”
Being the third German film in a row to be nominated for an Oscar, we asked how his country has been preparing him for the experience. “I think Michael Barker of Sony Pictures Classics knows better what is to be done than the German government,” he said with a smile. “Germany’s done alright, but in the history of the Oscars, Germany has only won two Oscars for ‘The Tin Drum,’ and to everyone’s surprise, ‘Nowhere in Africa’ by Caroline Link. She wasn’t even there to accept because her child was ill, so she stayed in Germany, so it was very anticlimactic for all Germans. It was just announced that it went to Germany and she wasn’t there, so they immediately passed to the next one.”
And how does he feel going up against Guillermo del Toro’s beloved Pan’s Labyrinth, the Mexican offering that’s captured everyone’s heart? Is it enough to have his film nominated? “I think it’s a big deal, because it means a 20% chance of winning it, but if you look at the odds of the bookkeepers in Vegas, the scores are lower. I have a friend who is a pathological better and he always sends me the odds. He says if you bet $100 on ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and it wins you get $16–you can almost get better rates at the bank–and if you put $100 on ‘Lives of Others’ to win and it does, you’ll make $700, so you can see how much better his odds are. I think Guillermo is such a great guy. I’d like to say really that I hope I beat him, but Guillermo’s such a great guy you almost can’t say that, because you can’t be unhappy if someone as nice as that wins the award.”
However things go at the Oscars, it may be a while before we see a follow-up from this exciting German filmmaker. “I can only work in real quiet and peace and with all the festivals I’m still traveling to, I don’t have that peace and quiet. I actually wrote this screenplay in a monk’s cell. My uncle is a monk and after researching for one and a half years and I knew I had to get this screenplay out of my head, I wrote to him and asked if I could join him in the monastery, while I work on my screenplay. All I brought was a new Apple Powerbook, a copy of Final Draft and a copy of ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ screenplay for formatting. It was very intense and concentrated atmosphere and I got more work done there in a month than I would have in a year outside.”
That setting may account for the somber nature of The Lives of Others and in conclusion, Florian told us what he hoped that viewers would get from his film. “I want them to come away with what I hope to come away with when I see films, which is just a feeling that the world is a great place of despair but also of beauty, a place that has great heights, but where you can also fall into great depths. The richness of the world is exactly the kind of message I look for in films I go to see and pay money for, and that’s the kind of message I hope to give also.”