expect the director of
Germany’s submission for the Best Foreign
Film Oscar to have a German accent. Not this time. Florian Henckel von
Donnersmarck, the director of The Lives of Others, was born and is from
Germany, but he spent some very formative
years in the
United States. In New York City, in fact – Roosevelt Island, which was still called Welfare
Island when his family moved there. Recently his brother told him there’s a
horror movie set on
Roosevelt Island. It’s Dark Water, and he gets a little bummed when I tell
him how badly it sucks.

The Lives of Others
very definitely does not suck. It’s already been a massive
hit in Germany – von Donnersmarck says they
teach it in schools – and the Oscar nomination should do good things for it
when it opens in limited release in the
US this weekend. Set in 1984 in East Berlin, The Lives of Others is about a
playwright and his actress lover and the man from the Stasi, the East German
secret police, who spies on them and eventually – and strangely and secretly –
becomes involved in their lives.

Florian can talk – he’s big in height and in verbiage. Here are some highlights of what he had to say at the press day last week.

The look of

Everything was under state control. It had to be depressing – even visually.
They didn’t have any full functioning colors. I once talked to a chemist who
explained to me that the reason for this was that there were certain patents
they couldn’t get in the Eastern Bloc for the production of bright colors.

Stasi employees today

The only thing former Stasi employees are not allowed to do is work for the
state officially. Especially the high ranking people have fallen on their feet
– they don’t suffer from the consequences of what they did. I think there were
total 20 actual sentences pronounced for crimes committed within the Stasi.
That’s really not very many when you consider there were 300,000 employees of
this organization.


It was really quite a challenge to recreate [
East Berlin]. I sometimes think it would have
been easier to make a film that was set 300 years in the past, visually,
because there you have entire building complexes that are maintained in a
certain historic authenticity. Except for the Stasi headquarters and archives –
we were the first film team to shoot [there]. That was quite exciting.

The Research

The research was quite an emotional roller coaster ride. One day I would listen
to someone cry as they described what they went through in these prisons – it
was quite tough to listen to – and the next I would spend the day in the
apartment of one of their torturers. I really felt that it was important to
hear both sides because I didn’t want to make a propaganda film for both sides.
Sometimes of course I felt a little hypocritical listening to these Stasi
people and making them feel I was more on their side than I really was, but I
know that’s something journalists have to do all the time. I think the nice
thing is that if you’re a journalist listening politely to someone telling you
something you don’t agree with, you have the consolation that you’re the one
that will have the last laugh, as you’re the one doing the article or the show
and somehow commenting on it. You can wait until it’s your time to take

I saw pretty much all documentaries [about the Stasi]. I met the lady who tells
her story in The Decomposition of the Soul. I was on a talk show with her, and
that was the first time I heard the thing about [during an interrogation]
putting your hands under your thighs. It’s a tiny thing that makes an
investigation that much more painful. It’s really weird, you wouldn’t think so,
but to actually sit on your hands for so many hours makes it excruciating. I
don’t even know how they figure out these things – they probably had a research
department that would figure out these little things that would seem innocuous
and have a great effect.

The Actors

I tried to use the energy that comes with the fact that people took their work
seriously because they knew it was authentic. People weren’t making fun of
their characters or fooling around – they were very focused. Even the ones who
hadn’t experienced the Stasi took it very seriously out of respect for those
who did.

I had historical consultants there at all times who would make sure everything
was historically accurate down to the minute detail, like the shampoo bottles
being used or specific vocabulary. But of course the actors who also had
experienced all this. Ulrich Muhe often said his preparation for this film
consisted of remembering. That’s all that it was.

The Artist in East Germany in the 80s

The position of the artist in the GDR in 1984 was very strange. Take the
example of writers for example: a writer in the GDR was, to the Stasi, the most
dangerous creature of all. They had a very unusual system – it’s quite
complicated, but I think it will give you some insight into how the Stasi dealt
with artists. They knew that once a writer became famous, he was almost
untouchable. They couldn’t really do anything serious to him without it
provoking so much protest in the East and the West. So what they tried to do
was target artists and writers who were not yet famous. They used schools as
informers of who was writing what kind of poetry that may be interesting. They
would find some 20 year old guy who had written some poems, and some informers
in his entourage were telling the Stasi he was not politically reliable. The
Stasi would read these poems and, based on the political content of these,
arrest him and place him in jail for five years, after which this person did
not feel the need or wish to write again. They would destroy the talent and the
ambition, and the loss was never noticed, because nobody knew he would have
become a major, major writer. The strange thing that happened from this is that
the writers that emerged and became famous felt they had done so without any
contact with the Stasi, but they had in fact indirectly selected by the Stasi,
because all the other ones had been weeded out. Even the ones that were the
most dissident among the famous writers were, in absolute terms, very moderate.
But they felt they were being very courageous because of the ‘daring things’
they said against the state, but the Stasi found it very famous because they
knew these were the tamest ones. This is something that East German writers to
this day have not understood, and it would be something quite painful to
understand about yourself – that you had been selected by the Stasi because you
wouldn’t cause them any problems. They fancy themselves now as victims of the
Stasi because they were under surveillance.


I remember on this one occasion when I was 8 and my brother was 9 and we drove
to the East and my mother was led out of the car to one of those border houses
and was kept there for hours. We didn’t know what was happening. Then she was
led back and was all shaking and trembling and angry and told us that they had
strip searched her and humiliated her in all kinds of ways. My brother and I
was amazed that the state had this incredible power over my mother. I think
this is one of those things about totalitarian states and absolute power – they
are so powerful they can turn an adult into a total child. It taught me an
important lesson about totalitarianism. I really think that if you take that
word – it means total control over every aspect of people’s lives. If they
didn’t like who you were having sex with, they could stop that. If they didn’t
like the books you were reading, well, they could change that. They felt that
every aspect was theirs to control. That’s something I dislike so much – I have
such a dislike of power that sometimes it’s difficult for me to be
authoritarian with my children because I always feel who am I to tell these
guys what to do? I’ll rather accept chaos than that kind of dominance.

How does that work as a director?

As a director, the great thing is that people somehow accept that authority. It
isn’t like with children, who are naturally chaotic; everybody really wants to
please the director. They know it’s your neck that’s on the line and not
theirs. The great thing in directing is that people are happy for every
decision you take for them. I’m always surprised when I hear about directors
who shout and fight with people. There’s no need to do that at all.

Post-Communism Generation in

I’d like to say that it’s changed since my film came out, because my film was
actually used in schools a lot. I think young people watched it and did catch a
glimpse of other aspects of GDR since the fall of the Wall. Just before my film
I know there was a survey done by a civil rights activist, and she asked young
people lots of questions about the GDR, among them if the GDR was a
dictatorship. I was horrified because young people said, no, of course not, it
was a funny place. This happened because of the portrayal of the GDR in the
media, and especially film, of the GDR as this funny place where, OK, maybe we
didn’t have that much money and maybe things were a little bit strange, but it
was still a whole lot better and more honest than the West. As a result these
young people believe that, which is worrying – it was an incredibly cruel

For example,
a film like Goodbye Lenin, which is a film I liked very much as a narrative. But
at the same time I wonder if in 1960 a filmmaker had made a film about a Hitler
Youth whose mother had fallen into a coma just before the last days of the war
and now she wakes up from the coma and the Hitler Youth doesn’t want her to
fall into shock so he tells her Hitler is still in power. He forges radio transmissions
of Goebbels, assures here there aren’t any Jews in
Berlin… would we have found that so
touching? I wonder. The thing is I’m not equating the terrors of those two
regimes, but at the same time they were both regimes willing to kill their
enemies and torture them. There are differences in scope, but in category? No. But
I could see how those seductive and well-made films could confuse young people
and convince them people stuck together more in
Eastern Germany.

Academy Awards

It’s a big deal because it means a 20% chance of winning it – although,
actually if you look at the [odds] of the bookies in Vegas, the [odds] are a
lot lower. I have a friend who is a pathological bettor and he always sends me
the odds, and he’s betting on all kinds of things. He says if you bet $100 on
Pan’s Labyrinth and he wins, you get 16 dollars. You can almost get better
rates at the bank. If you put $100 on Lives of Others and I win, you make $700.
So you can see how much better [Guillermo del Toro’s] odds are.

I don’t know if you’ve talked to him, but he’s such a great guy. I’d like to
say I hope I beat him, but he’s such a great guy you almost can’t say it
because you couldn’t be unhappy if someone like that wins the award. Like at
the Golden Globes, I lost to Clint Eastwood – but it’s not the worst thing in
the world to lose to Clint Eastwood!