Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck is a lean, tall drink of wasser. Door lintels prove a hazardous proposition for this 6'9" fellow who arrived apologetically late to our interview at the Ritz Carlton, having had to wolf down lunch; a customary practice, I presume, on out-of-town press junkets. I didn't mind waiting. His English was impeccable, his sense of humor intact, and his intelligence ready and willing to engage. After the usual introductions and niceties, we joked about how the success of The Lives of Others has brought us both to the Ritz Carlton. Otherwise, he joked, had the film not done so well he might have ended up in a youth hostel where I might not have been convinced to hook up with him.
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Michael Guillén: Florian, I come to you today with congratulations on your numerous nominations and awards for your debut feature film The Lives of Others. In the past week alone you've won the Palm Springs International Film Festival's Audience Choice Award for Best Narrative Feature….
Donnersmarck: You were there for the ceremonies on that?
Guillén: Not the ceremonies, but, I did attend the festival.
Donnersmarck: Because they'd told me I had got that but I was wondering whether they have some statue of some kind? I was thinking, Palm Springs, they must have some beautiful palm or something like that; but, no one's sent me one.
Guillén: I think it's all just on-line text.
Donnersmarck: [Chuckles.] Just on-line text? Okay, well….
Guillén: But the audience loved it and that's important.
Donnersmarck: That's good.
Guillén: Also, this morning I read on Indiewire that your film has made the short list of nine films eligible for the Academy Awards foreign language category. Congratulations on that major development.
Donnersmarck: Thanks a lot. That's quite an important step now. It's actually quite a cruel system, isn't it? You could almost say out of nine you're not choosing five; you're eliminating four. Because you're choosing more than half. Normally, if you say there's a huge number and you have to choose a few out of those, that's fine—everybody knows that's how life is—but to actually have a pretty small number and you choose more than half to stay along, it's pretty cruel, isn't it? Not to be part of the five?
Guillén: You had actually strategized with regard to the Oscars—hadn't you?—in hopes that your film would be nominated in other categories than just foreign language feature?
Donnersmarck: Sony did a so-called "qualifying run", which means that you can present your film for other categories so that they might be eligible; but, I think one of the main reasons for that is actually that you can then send dvds of your film out to all members of the Academy, rather than just the people on the foreign language film committee. That way there will be more attention to the film and there's more likeliness that people will actually see it.
Guillén: I can't believe The Lives of Others wouldn't at least be nominated for best screenplay as well.
Donnersmarck: Really? Well, thanks. Your words in the Academy's ear. [Laughs.]
Guillén: So much has been written and said about The Lives of Others both in Europe and Stateside—and most of it quite favorable—that I fear treading on all-too-familiar territory. Please pardon me if my queries are nowhere near unique; but, what can we do?
Donnersmarck: No, no, I have no problem with that.
Guillén: What I wanted to explore with you this morning—not being a film critic myself—is some of the negative criticism the film has received, because I'm personally interested in how you refute your detractors.
Guillén: One of your most eloquent opponents is Australian writer Anna Funder, author of the 2004 study Stasiland, who basically claims that the central premise of your film—that Stasi agent Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) "turns" and changes for the good—is an absurd fiction that is morally weird.
Donnersmarck: I didn't know that. When did she write that?
Guillén: She was quoted in Geoffrey MacNab's article in The Independent earlier this month. Funder arms herself with the fact that former head of the Stasi File Authority, Joachim Gauck, has asserted that the records of the Stasi show no such thing ever happened. She suggests no self-respecting Stasi officer would have exhibited pity for his victims and points out that none have shown any remorse after the Wall has fallen. She expresses reservations about what purpose is served by depicting a Stasi officer who behaves honorably? She pointedly asks: "Of course a movie can give us psychological satisfactions that real life can't—the happy end, or, as here, the change of heart. I think it is a terrific movie, but I am deeply uncomfortable about this rotten core. How would we feel about an equally terrific movie made, say in the early 1960s, which showed the change of heart, redemption and comeuppance of a Gestapo agent? Whose interests does this serve?" How do you respond to Funder's reservations?
Donnersmarck: There are many people who write about the Stasi who haven't really researched it very thoroughly and who don't know that much about it. Coming to look at this, it seems to me that she's also one of these people who voice opinions before they've really looked into something. If she looked further into it, for example, she would see that precisely the man that she's quoting—Joachim Gauck—was one of the first people to actually write a large article over several pages about the film in Der Stern saying that—the caption above it, the title of the article was "This Is Exactly The Way Things Were", Ja, so war es!—it was actually his very offices that gave me several documents of cases that had shocking similarities to what went on there. There was, for example, one case of a captain of the same rank as Wiesler, Werner Teske, who in 1981 just a few years before this film [was set] was caught by his superior looking into files that were none of his business. His superior said to him, the only way you can still save your position is by saying everything that's on your mind and why you've been looking into [these files] and so on. They did this little court case against [Teske], which was actually tape-recorded, which the Gauck Archives found, and they gave me this tape recording of this trial. The Stasi had this crazy thing that they recorded everything! It was one of those weird things. It was like an obsession that they had. In this recording you [hear Teske] who, for some reason, took what his superior told him at face value. I don't know. Maybe he just had to get out of his soul all his doubts and reservations about his job and about the system and about the things that he found out about the file and how he was even thinking of somehow getting out of the country. Through all this material a very sympathetic character emerges who you can't help but like, although I was surprised to find him quite naïve for a Stasi officer. After that, just from the material that they got from this [trial], they condemned him to be executed. He was shot in the back of the head at short range in 1981; one of the last documented cases of a disloyal Stasi agent being assassinated. There was also another case actually that only came up quite recently that I didn't even know [about] while I was researching the case. Have you heard of Wolf Biermann?
Guillén: The East German poet?
Donnersmarck: Exactly. He had several Stasi agents—many many more than my fictitious writer Georg Dreyman—who were assigned to him. Der Spiegel wrote an article about this when they reported on this film because those documents had just become known. One of his Stasi agents was so impressed with Biermann's character that he started writing poetry himself and founded a group of poet Stasi agents [laughs] and they would meet once a week and read each other their terrible poems, I mean really terrible stuff, but still they were trying to express true feeling because they were so inspired by Biermann! At the same time, I don't even like to enumerate all the cases of those rare rare rare cases where Stasi agents betrayed their system because I think that would, indeed, put the wrong stress. I'm only telling you this now because someone who should know better like Anna Funder is coming up with wrong facts. I don't like to use that [material] because I don't want to give the impression that most Stasi agents, or many Stasi agents, or even a substantial number of Stasi agents, were fighting against the Stasi. That is not the case. I think that my film makes that very clear. No one has the impression that, oh wow, the Stasi were actually the good guys. Quite the contrary. Why I am telling the story of The Lives Of Others is to show people how they could behave given such a situation. And these situations will arise again. You don't have to have an absolute dictatorial system. It can be within the confines of a school, or a hierarchical business organization, or whatever, that we will have the chance to display a similar kind of heroism—to put it simply—as [Wiesler] is displaying. It makes it too easy for people in criminal organizations like the Stasi or the Gestapo if you say that—once you're a member of that group—that's it, you've lost your humanity, you're morally dead, it's over, there's no possibility for you to redeem yourself. You can always change your ways. It's much harder when you're in an organization like [the Stasi], which is why a character like [Wiesler] deserves so much admiration. Which is also why I was pretty angry when people accused Steven Spielberg [of humanizing Nazis]. They said, "Look at all these millions of Germans who behaved like monsters and you choose the one good German, Schindler, to make the film about." But I think that is still the right approach because it is exactly these people that we should be looking at and saying, "This is how you could behave and don't you be forgetting that." That's important and it's very shortsighted to consider that a "rotten core."
Guillén: I'm glad you mention Wolf Biermann. I felt his write-up of your film for Die Welt, translated into English for Sign and Sight, was one of the most interesting in that he sat down with other dissidents to watch your film. He wrote, this was factually wrong and this was factually wrong and this was factually wrong, BUT….
Donnersmarck: They were pretty wrong about many of those facts as well, though.
Guillén: Still, as a true poet, he was forgiving for what he saw to be your factual inaccuracies—whether you agree they were inaccurate or not—and caught the spirit of what you were trying to express. He felt The Lives Of Others conveyed things to him that he could never have imagined "being real". He even conceded—rather generously I thought—that, yes, "we are all addicted to evidence of people's ability to change for the good." That brings me, by contrast, to Scott Foundas' review in the L.A. Weekly. I don't know if you've read his review?
Donnersmarck: I've read that, yeah.
Guillén: Here we have a less obliging critique. I respect Scott Foundas and his writing, but, had several issues with this particular review, not the least of which—if I'm understanding him correctly—is his disdain for sentimentalized heroics as some throwaway technique of old Hollywood. Let alone his acrid view of the potential of human nature (he wrote you have an "unwavering belief in the essential goodness of mankind, despite so much evidence to the contrary"). Granted, that the dramatized heroism of Weisler in The Lives Of Others seems to be in direct counterpoint to the pared-down aesthetics of the so-called Die Berliner Schule, do you feel that the heroism you represented in The Lives Of Others is old style? Out of date? Sentimental revisionism?
Donnersmarck: I must say I find it more problematic if someone sees the film like Anna Funder who wrote Stasiland because I disagree with that fundamental view of mankind. Scott Foundas' review was completely contradictory in itself because he claimed I was saying these people were just following orders—["Remember Those Stasi? They Weren't So Bad After All"]—and that I looked at [those days] with "dewy-eyed nostalgia." I remember that expression. That's something no one has ever said. The idea that I was heroizing people who were just following orders. I was heroizing the one person who stopped following orders. That's precisely what I'm doing. I'm doing the exact contrary of what Foundas is accusing me of. If you stop following orders, that may be the way out of that terrible misery. Now he says my next film will be about the people who were so great because they followed Hitler's orders? That's weird. I just thought that was very strange. But I know that type of critic very well. They see, "Oh no, everybody else is writing something positive about [this film]; I'm not going to be part of that herd. I'll write something different! I'll be original." But that's terrible because, at the end of the day, it's not as if consensus is something necessarily bad. If that were the case, then a film like Godfather Pt. 2 would be a really bad film because everybody agrees that that's a great film. I thought it was too bad if a critic writes a review out of some kind of weird vanity of wanting to be the only one going against the stream and ruining my Rotten Tomatoes score in the go…." [Laughs.]
Guillén: Well, I can appreciate if a critic doesn't like something most others like and feels compelled to express his point of view—though it does seem a bit like unnecessarily butting your head against a wall—but, my main objection against the review was a felt one when Foundas wrote, "And judging by the film's success in Germany and its enthusiastic reception at this year's Telluride and Toronto film festivals, it's a good bet that many moviegoers will feel similarly moved." As if, again—like you're saying—consensus is a dirty word. Such a posed distance between critic and audience seems hazardously petulant.
Donnersmarck: Having said that, I was treated as well by critics as anybody could possibly hope to be. I'd really almost put it in absolute terms that there's not one single critic—certainly not in Europe, I don't know about all the American ones (although my Rotten Tomatoes score is pretty good; that's the only negative review I got, from Scott Foundas)—but, any really serious newspaper—the kind of newspaper that would be read by educated people—gave me incredibly positive reviews. Not one exception. Normally, and very often, they had several articles by let's say a novelist or another filmmaker, or by a [bona fide] film critic, and they would explore it from different angles, or a third [angle] by a political [analyst]. Also, The Lives Of Others did incredibly well at the European Film Awards, where you're voted upon by your peers and filmmakers, so it would be wrong and distorting to say it's an audience pleaser but critics consider me immoral or that the film has an immoral theme. That's not the case at all. Some people take it like that, but fortunately they're rare and I think the people that like the film have better arguments than the people who don't.
I don't think that's always the case. For example, I like Downfall. I thought it was a good film. I can understand very much the arguments of people who criticize it for certain things. That doesn't change my opinion. I find that there were more attacks of Downfall than there were of [my film] but I found them slightly more founded and they're the kind of [criticisms] that did make me think a little bit, whereas the attacks that I've received on this film—which weren't many—didn't really make me think because they were not thought through to the end.
Guillén: The challenge of your film for me—moreso the first time I saw the film than the second (because I liked it better the second time than the first)—was that I was wrestling with the believability of Weisler's conversion the first time I saw The Lives of Others, but the second time I was more willing to accept it; I think because I appreciated the subtleties in Ulrich Mühe's performance more and accepted his gradual change. So it seems to come down to this issue of whether its credible that someone can change like that and, clearly, you have stated that—in effect—they can. For me it returns to the satisfaction of believing they can. Actually, Wiesler's transformation reminded me of fireman Guy Montag's transformation in Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451, cinematically rendered by Francois Truffaut. Are you familiar with the novel and the film?
Donnersmarck: I saw Truffaut's Farenheit 451 as a kid so I don't remember it completely but I think it was considerably less realistic in what it was trying to do. It considered itself more a parable, right? The entire production design, and the way it was acted, it was not something that was supposed to be directly believable. It was just to make you think. It was almost a cautionary tale. I don't see The Lives Of Others as a cautionary tale in that way.
Guillén: I guess the analogy that I'm drawing is that, what precipitates the moral change in your character was the music and the emotional authenticity of the lives he was observing, much like literature kickstarted Montag's transformation. Though it's probably simplistic to presume that art alone could motivate such a change, and if I recall correctly Foundas likewise took objection to that.
Donnersmarck: I do think that it is believable that people would change even like that. I have seen people change. Even just the very thing that made me have the idea to write The Lives Of Others can almost serve as proof that [change] could happen like that. That is, this quote from Lenin to his friend Maxim Gorky. I actually recently found the quote in the Russian original on Wikiquotes. Do you know that page? They have the quote there in the Russian original. I only had the German book version of it but I spent two years in Russia so I always felt I should at some point find it in Russian. I always looked for it and I could never find that exact book and then suddenly I found it on Wikiquotes. Lenin said to his friend Maxim Gorky, "Beethoven's Appassionata is my favorite piece of music but I'm not going to listen to it anymore because, if I do, it makes me want to stroke people's heads and tell them nice, stupid things, and I have to smash in those heads, smash them in without mercy, to bring my revolution to an end. So I'm just not going to listen to it anymore." I thought that was a really amazing testament and tribute to the power of art. And art is only one of the things that makes my character change in The Lives Of Others. It's not just because of Brecht and Beethoven (or in Lives Of Others Gabriel Yared) that he changes. It's also because he realizes his sacred mission is being used to satisfy a high politician's sex urges; the arbitrary use of power. He sees that his true belief in this whole system actually makes him a bit of an alien among these people who are using it pragmatically and cynically. And that his friend, Lt. Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), who was always a little bit less intelligent and a little less loyal than he was, is also having a bigger and better career.
Guillén: That's actually what made Weisler's transformation more believable for me on the second viewing. The first time I was linking it more to the music and the eavesdropping. The second time it did seem to be more about a betrayal to his—as you call it—"sacred mission." Maybe that's why I went with it more the second time.
Donnersmarck: It's like a mid-life crisis. We've probably all come close to experiencing something like that where everything seems to be pushing us into a direction of values different than the ones we've been embracing all our lives. A mid-life crisis is something that can actually happen. It's the kind of thing that can make a Catholic priest who's spent all his life obeying those rules suddenly go haywire. It's also something that can make a mafia boss go soft and seek a therapist. Or which can suddenly make a father want to leave his family. But it's never one single thing. It is always an accumulation of things. That's why I wanted the change in the film to actually start with the film. I wanted it to begin pretty much from the beginning and for there to never be an actual turning point because that is something that all the books on screenwriting say: if there's any change in character, there has to be a clearly-identified turning point. Even the old Greeks would go on about that. But I think it's wrong because, unless there's divine intervention, I don't think that things happen like Saul who turns into St. Paul from one day to the next. This day I'm killing Christians and the next day I am one. It doesn't happen like that. I mean, sometimes it does happen like that. I know that from this whole born-again Christian thing. Suddenly they'll tout some former Nazi or abortionist or something like that and say, "Now look! This person is now the greatest advocate of our cause and believes in Jesus Christ and embraced us." Normally, about a year afterwards, they're not talking about him anymore at all because he went back to his old life. When these things happen, it's like a dislocated joint; it'll pop back in eventually.
If there's something which you know has been pushing your doors out from all sides all the time, it would be very hard to change back. A thing which actually happened to Mikhail Gorbachev. This is someone whom, during my studies, I actually got to spend some time with. While I was studying at Oxford, he came there in 1993 to teach and—since I was one of the few students who spoke good Russian—I was in charge of leading him around town. He is someone who cried bitter tears at Stalin's death, thinking this was the end of the world. And he ended up becoming the fiercest anti-Stalinist in history. That guy did undergo that kind of change. He was a real ideologue. But it didn't happen from one day to the next. It did not. If Yuri Andropov hadn't died so soon, I actually think he was on a similar path. These things do happen.
Guillén: Well, you could even seek precedent with Heraclitus and promote enantiodromia, which basically says that any strongly-based conviction contains its reversal. Something will always gradually become its opposite the more you go into it.
Donnersmarck: I'm not so familiar with that.
Guillén: I can speak from my own experience. I've worked my whole adult life in the legal field and finally reached a disjuncture where I felt there was something morally questionable about law enforcement.
Donnersmarck: [Laughs.] I could see where you'd reach that.
Guillén: That was another thing that helped me relate to this film. I could see that such a change could happen because it happened to me. That's why I've been so curious about the people who don't like the film and how they seem to aim at the credibility, the authenticity, or the truth of Weisler's conversion. But even Wolf Biermann was so eloquent about how he understood your film when he said you can go through all the facts but they might not document the truth as well as a piece of fiction.
Donnersmarck: The great thing about fiction is fiction—when done well—is truer than fact. It's truer than a true story. The word for fiction in German—dichtung—actually means density. It's actually the same word. It's the word for fiction and poetry at the same time. Of course you somehow have to make things more dense in fiction, you can make them more dense in fiction, ideally you do, and you're encapsulating much more than the arbitrary qualities of a very loose reality. After seeing something like The Deerhunter, I've understood more about the Vietnam War, although of course that story is completely fictional, much more so than The Lives Of Others, but still it captures the essence of something. Even for people who were in the Vietnam War and didn't end up playing Russian roulette there, The Deerhunter still expressed something they felt. The same way the Vietnam veterans said The Deerhunter expressed what they felt, the great writers of East Germany—not just Biermann—wrote fantastic pieces about how The Lives Of Others captured their experience in essence.
This is the beauty of fiction. A film like Dr. Zhivago makes me understand things about the Russian Revolution. Gone With the Wind makes me understand great aspects about what the people in the South were fighting for; it gives me a feel for that era, for the conflict of the times, and because it is so real, and so specific, and so true, has relevance for my present life today because—at the end of the day when you get to the true fundamental human emotions like love, fear, invasion of privacy and what that does to you—we can go to these [fictions] and we all know them from our lives. Tell me one person here in America who doesn't know what it feels like to be under surveillance from the Stasi. We all know what it feels like. If you've had strict parents, you know what it feels like. If you've ever had an asshole boss, you know what it feels like. These are universal things. These are things that haven't disappeared in Germany just with the disappearance of the Stasi and they're in existence here [in the States] as well, although there never was a Stasi and this has always been a democratic country.
Guillén: Well, that being said, I'm feeling a little bit under the surveillance of the publicist. [Laughs.] Thank you so much. Good luck at the Academy Awards. I hope they're not too cruel to you.
Donnersmarck: Thank you very much. I understand that you're wanting to write something novel about the film by approaching the negative criticism, but at the same time I think it's important to remember the proportion of the positive criticism. Look at Rotten Tomatoes, for example, so far there are 19 reviews or so, and there's that one negative review by Scott Foundas. [I actually saw him at the L.A. Film Critics Association, and even almost went up to him. I won this award there a few days ago. The really good critics like Kenneth Turan and people like that had all together-–or at least 19 of them, I'm told-–decided that The Lives Of Others was the best foreign film of the year. I like to think that when it was decided, Foundas went blue in the face and almost popped, but that there was nothing he could do because he was the only one of the group who hated the film.] It's important not to make it sound in your report like the proportions were different. I could see how that would be a danger.
Guillén: Hopefully my readers will not make that erroneous assumption and will recognize that I simply wanted to hear how you refuted the few negative criticisms levied against the film. Once again, thanks for your time.
Cross-published at Twitch. My thanks to Reinhard Seidel for help with the German translations.
02/16/07 UPDATE: As a filmmaker himself, SF360's Miljenko Skoknik queries von Donnersmarck on camera shots, managing actors, and collaborating on Gabriel Yared's score.
02/19/07 UPDATE: A slight edit has been made to this transcript to more accurately reflect the articulated intention of von Donnersmarck and has been indicated by brackets.
02/23/07 UPDATE: Jonathan Marlow's interview with von Donnersmarck is up on the main Greencine site and is noteworthy for its inquiry into von Donnersmarck's history with making short films. With regard to the "backlash" that the film has received from some critics, Marlow finds it "particularly odd because the people expressing their frustrations with The Lives of Others seemingly wouldn't have an issue with the same ambiguities in a film like The Conversation." "Because it wasn't successful!" von Donnersmarck comments.