Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the 33-year-old director of The Lives of Others, is an imposing man with an even more imposing head of curly hair. "I hope you'll tell your readers to see my film," he said, imposingly. He also had to know my take on the (to his mind) unjust success of Pan's Labyrinth at the American box office. The Lives of Others goes up against Pan's Labyrinth in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards on Sunday, February 25.
Oh, I definitely loved your film. I don't usually do interviews when I don't like the movie. It can be torturous.
It's true; it can be especially torturous for the director. It creates a really awkward situation, where someone is sitting there, all hostile, like you're a morally bankrupt element of society or something like that.
Has that happened on this tour?
It hasn't happened with first-rate journalists. It's happened with second-rate journalists. You know, there's a certain thing that happens when all the serious papers are writing that this film is great: Some critics say, I'm going to create a profile for myself by going to this film, hating, and then writing about it. They go in with the intention of being original by wanting to hate it.
There does seem like there's a backlash recently, especially with the new documentary that's also about the Stasi, The Decomposition of the Soul.
Yes, yes, people really like that documentary. Have you seen it?
I have not, it's not opening in Seattle anytime soon.
Well, I mean, I still have the Rotten Tomatoes score of 95 percent or something like that, so I really can't complain. There is one film that has a higher score than mine, which is Pan's Labyrinth.
Which you're up against for the foreign language Oscar.
Which we're up against. So was it on your top-10 list, too?
Neither of your films was on my top-10 list, because they both opened in Seattle in 2007. But you'll be competing against each other for next year's list.
This is a film that I would expect to be a film for the kind of people who are really into violence or a, you know, a tattooed crowd—but it became such a mainstream success that... it says something about the American audience.
I think that the fact that it's a fairy tale makes the violence more interesting. It's not like it's a shoot-'em-up action film obviously aimed at a 20-something audience. A fairy tale has explicit violence that people look over.
I think there is a fairy-tale aspect and I don't mind the violence in the fairy tale, you know, the fairies being eaten by the guy with the eyes in his hand. That's fairy-tale violence, I agree. But seeing a guy in close-up sewing up a gash in his face. Or a resistance fighter's leg being sawed off in detail. Or those terrible torture scenes, where that guy's hand is not in existence anymore—those things I can't believe it's a fairy tale. It is very much in the real, here and now.
I didn't totally feel like those two aspects could be separated. There is definitely a storytelling gloss on the "real" things—they both had heightened tragedy, and heightened violence, and heightened drama, you know, and I don't think you were supposed to see that as realism.
I will be really interested to see how this film does in Europe, because I do not think that it will do this well. I wonder what the people there who have had so much in the way of real violence in our history will be so willing to accept that kind of violence. Also I think that European people do not have that same belief in it being possible to separate the good and the bad. The captain in the Franco army [in Pan's Labyrinth], he's a real demon; there's no redeeming feature about him—except that he's good-looking. That's a romantic view of psychology. [In reality,] [t]here are mixed motives; every villain has a good side, and every good person...
Your work has that moral ambiguity.
I think that's what life is about, trying to do the good thing even when it's hard to recognize. If life were that easy we'd all be revolutionaries in the hills, fighting Franco.
Let's talk about how your film is being received in Germany. You mentioned in the press notes that people seem to have been more open to comedies about the GDR, and I assume you're referencing films like Good Bye Lenin! Why do you think that is?
It could be a number of things. That people were so hurt and wronged, that everything that had to do with this delicate aspect of their history, you know... They felt that it would be healing to laugh about it. I do think that laughter has that power. In a way I think those films made it possible to make this film. It could also have just been something that we didn't want to acknowledge, for just after that first dictatorship, which was something we were just coming to terms with, and lasted for 12 years, from '33 to '45, came a second dictatorship, which lasted not 12 but 40 years. And we need to acknowledge that.
Have there been many novels or other cultural reflections that seem similar to your approach?
You know, I think that there will be more now—not just because of my film, but maybe my film has been the first to realize that the time has come. There have been novels about that subject matter, but they've been too didactic, or maybe too pedagogical in some way. The main purpose of film is always to entertain, that's just how it is. If you don't have that, you're not going to be able to get across any messages, at least not any that people are going to listen to. As a filmmaker, you just have to trust the fact that if you tell a story and set it in a certain time period, it is going to relay your thinking. You do not have to specifically state those convictions over and over again, thereby making some kind of university-course film rather than art, and it should be art. Art is about reaching people, about making them expand their souls, not about being taught something
What do you think about Brecht?
Oh, I admire him greatly. His biography is quite troubling, but his art is amazing. Last year they founded a Brecht festival in Augsburg, which is his home city, and I was actually asked to deliver the opening address. He is probably one of the most powerful masters of the German language, and he also saw that moral questions are just that: questions. He tried to give answers, again and again—with communism—but he also saw that the reality of communism didn't have much to do with his ideal. He ended up writing a poem, apologizing for all the terrible things, called "To Those Born After." He apologizes to those not yet born for the things that they did to make the world the way that it is for them now. He didn't apologize for changing his outlook, either—he said, "I can never get myself to learn my convictions by heart." I thought that was a really good way of putting it.
That's interesting that you have your main character, a playwright, reading a book of Brecht's poetry. Did you choose that over a play?
I can't tell you what an incredible fight it was to get the rights to use that poem. Brecht was someone who used things wherever he could get them. He really did not respect copyright. That was part of his philosophy. But his daughter, who's in charge of the estate, is incredibly restrictive. I could only get the rights because Ulrich Mühe, who plays the lead character, the Stasi officer, is friends with her, and he eventually said, "Give us the poem already."
Another issue that your film brings up that isn't very familiar to American audiences is the issue of how East Germans were reintegrated into West German culture.
Yeah, it was very hard, especially for artists. What I say in the film, or what the minister says to the writer—"You're not writing anymore"—that's what happened. When the wall came down, they suddenly stopped writing; they didn't know to write anymore. They'd always been living with reference to this political system, and when that broke away, they didn't know what they were writing anymore. It was very strange. So much of art was just used as a transport vehicle for little subversive phrase. You would write 40 pages of nonsense or boring stuff that seemed innocuous to hide that sentence. People would admire the artistry, but they were really admiring how the writer got that past the censors.
You have your playwright doing a play set in a factory.
Yes, they always did that. The funny thing is that when you see East German plays even now, they will still set plays in factories, but they don't know what a factory looks like anymore. It's all abstract, like Robert Wilson. It's funny, when I was in New York for the New York premiere, Robert Wilson was there, and he recognized that I was mocking the way they're always imitating his work. It's weird, in theater they always follow a certain dogma. In East Germany it was dogma that you had to set it in factories because you were doing social realism, Gorky style. In the '90s it was replaced by this new dogma—that everything had to be like Robert Wilson.
Ulrich Mühe seems so tailor-made for his role. Did you have him in mind when you were writing?
No, I didn't, because I always try to write without an actor in mind because I like to stay open-minded. I once did that on a short film that I wrote, and I ended up not getting that actor. I still made it, but it was a very frustrating experience.
Were you looking specifically for an actor that had East German roots?
No, I wasn't. The language is the same. An actor is an actor. When Ang Lee did Brokeback Mountain, he didn't look for two homosexual actors. Initially, I didn't know his background at all, but then he showed me his files, and there were these weird parallels to the character. I thought it was weird that I chose him, because even though I didn't know that about him, it was almost like you could see that.
It's funny, there's this painting in the film. I saw that painting in the office of the agent of the guy who plays the minister. I kept on thinking about that painting. I called him and said, look, I want this painting, I think it would lend itself to the film. After he said, yes, I would gladly do that, then I found out that this painting was by the agent's boyfriend who had lived in GDR exactly at that time and caused trouble with the authorities and the painting was his way of expressing that. I thought that it was really extraordinary that you could sense that in this painting.
Can we back up for a minute and talk about the genesis of the project?
Well, like it says in the press notes, I came across this quote by Lenin, where he was listening to Beethoven's Appassionata, and said that he couldn't listen to it anymore because it made him all soft and made him want to stroke people's heads instead of crushing them. Which he felt he had to, for the revolution. So I thought of making a character listen to the Appassionata, just before he had to crush someone's head.
When you conceived the story, with the conversion of a character caught up in this horrible institution, did you think about movies like Schindler's List?
I think it's always better to focus on the positive, not the negative. You always need someone to emulate, and the more you talk about the negative aspects, the more they will happen. I remember that when Spielberg made Schindler's List, people said, how can you make this film about a Nazi party member—one out of the thousands of Nazis who killed Jews—and you're making a film about the one guy who gave up his fortune to save us? But I think that it is really important to show people that this is how you could behave, if a situation like that arises. And it will arise, within our lifetimes.
In the film, neither the playwright nor the agent abandons the communist ideology. It's almost like separating the bureaucracy and the corrupt institution from the ideology.
Yeah, people did that, a little bit. They felt that communism was certainly right but that the way it was being lived in the GDR was wrong. I think that what they don't understand is that the only way you can make communism happen is by paying too high a price. How even Marx says that your path from capitalism to communism—the interim period is a dictatorship. And I don't think you should ever have a dictatorship, because it corrupts people too much. Power corrupts.