German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck made his mark early on at home with his short “Dobermann,” taking best short film at the Dresden Film Festival as well as an award at the Munich Film Festival. His latest film, “The Lives of Others” (Das Leben der Anderen) surrounds East Germany’s secret police (Stasi) and a famous couple living in the DDR. In the early 1980s, the successful dramatist Georg Dreyman and his longtime companion Christa-Maria Sieland, a popular actress, are big stars, although they secretly don’t always maintain the party line. One day, the Minister of Culture becomes interested in Christa, so the secret service agent Wiesler is instructed to observe and sound out the couple, but their life fascinates him more and more. “The Lives of Others” has been nominated for a best foreign-language Oscar as well as a Film Independent Spirit Award. The film has won awards at festivals around the globe including Locarno, Denver, Vancouver, London and his native country. Sony Pictures Classics opens the movie in the U.S. beginning in limited release Friday, February 9.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
I crave perfection. I despise imperfection. What is my biggest problem in life is my biggest edge in filmmaking. When I applied for one of the coveted spots for writing/directing at the Munich Film Academy, I remember being aked before my first interview to shoot a short film on video, within one hour, in their studio. It had to be edited in camera. You would tell the actors “freeze right there,” then run around them and have them continue their acting when you had settled in the new camera position. After one hour, the cassette was taken from me. The interview was next. When I walked in, there were eight German film dignitaries sitting at a half circe, with this huge flat screen TV mounted above their heads. They greeted me and pressed “Play.” My film. It was very weird and embarrassingly bad. How could it have been otherwise? Four minutes of intense suffering followed.
The film was meant to be a comedy, but nobody laughed, not even the tiniest merciful snigger. When the film was over, they turned toward me with stern faces: “Well, what have you to say about your opus?” It was a trick question. If I said, ‘I think it’s awful,’ they would answer, ‘You made this one hour ago. Can’t you own up to your work?’ but if I said, ‘Well, I think it was good,’ they’d say: ‘You think THAT was good?!?’ So I sighed and said quite honestly, “Look, I love films because it’s possible to achieve something close to perfection within them. But for that I have to choose the perfect artists, have a lot of money and a lot of time.” They didn’t look convinced and I started getting angry. I pointed at the screen where my ill-fated comedy had just played and exclaimed, “If this was what filmmaking was about, I wouldn’t want to become a director and I would not be applying to your f***ing school!” I got the place.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
Oh, of course! I have an entire filing cabinet full of film ideas that I’ve developed over the past 11 years. Some of them I think will be really good. Only, the way I work, I will not be able to do even 5% of them as a director. So I could well imagine producing some of them, once I have a company structure set up.
On the creative side, what I would most like to learn more about is writing music. I hear music in my head all the time, but I never learned to write it. If ever I had the time–and Gabriel Yared was not available–I would like to spend a year or so just studying composition.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
My megalomaniac goal was to make a film that could stand next to the films of Kubrick or William Wyler holding its head high, even if it only had a budget of just over two million dollars.
I had very specific ideas about whom I needed as collaborators. For example, I said to my editor when I tried to recruit her, “Patricia, we can pay you only half of what you usually make, but there is no other editor in all of Germany for me, so either you agree to edit this film or I have to edit it myself.” And it wasn’t a line. It was true. There is no one else. And it was the same with my composer, Gabriel Yared. I loved his music for “The Talented Mr. Ripley” so much that I knew I needed him for “The Lives of Others.” I needed the psychological beauty of his music. I wrote to his company for several months, getting polite replies from his assistant saying that he was booked up for three years. She knew that my budget for the entire film was about as large as his music budget usually is, and probably wanted to get rid of me.
But I remembered Andy Dufresne, Tim Robbins‘ character from “The Shawshank Redemption,” and just kept writing and writing. And when Gabriel finally wrote back in person and I got him to agree to meet, we got along so well that he found a way to make our collaboration possible. It was the same with the actors. I got through to these great actors because their agent (they’re all repped by the same brilliant 88-year-old lady) knew I was serious about them. I had become friends with her years before, while I was still in film school, and had tried desperately to get her actors for my short films. But she said, “Don’t waste my time with shorts. Come back when you have something real.” And I did. And she indeed helped me, and recommended the project and me to them most decisively.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in securing distribution for the movie?
Every single German distributor passed on the screenplay, even when I had these great actors on board. They thought the script was “too dark” and “too intellectual.” In a country where comedies are most successful, they were afraid of a film that talked of Lenin, Brecht and Beethoven. They even considered a miniscule minumum guarantee of 25,000 euros (about $30,000) too much of a risk. So I had to shoot without a distributor. But the worst was yet to come. Since one major funding board in Germany had refused us the money, we were about 250,000 euros short when we started the shoot. I tried to make up for this during shooting (we shot 38 days in total), but when all was over, we were still missing 180,000 euros.
Since we had no distributor who could cough up the difference, the producers said this would mean that I had to edit the film to about 90 minutes, since we couldn’t finish the film on money we didn’t have, and every additional minute of lab work and sound work costs money. All my artistic control was suddenly of no use to me or to them! Still, I edited in my little office in Berlin for six months to a final length of 137 minutes, hoping that the final cut would convince distributors to take the film onto their slate. But we showed the AVID playout to everybody, and they still all said, “Too serious. Not right for our company.” I started to shop around to see who of my relatives or friends could lend me 180,000 euros. A nearly unfeasibly task. The producers only had money left for two orchestra sessions. In order not to ruin the film, composer Gabriel Yared paid for the third orchestra session himself, I paid for the fourth. But because I’m enough of a positivist to believe that if nobody wants the film, it can’t be that great, I was quite depressed. But finally someone did want the film, and no one lesser than Buena Vista Germany. They ignored the fact that everybody had passed on it, bought it, and made it the 4th most successful German language film of 2006 (the first 3 being comedies, children films and one about the football world championship) with 1.7 million admissions!
Who are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
Foremost cultural influence: Sigmund Freud. Many people say his theories are ridiculous, but I am completely convinced he was right in almost everything, including his ideas about sex. I was in Japan a few months ago promoting “The Lives of Others.” The country and the culture were very interesting and very mysterious to me. I remember being given a guided tour through a Japanese TV station, NHK. Next to me, a Japanese all-boys school class was also led through the studio. They were about 15 years old, wearing navy blue British-looking uniform blazers. I remember watching them, and thinking: I know nothing about these boys. I don’t understand a word of their language, I don’t know what they are taught at school, how they’re treated at home, what their ambitions are or what they consider right or wrong. But there is one thing I know: That there is nothing more important to them right now than sex. That they think about it nine times per minute, and that all the straight ones had noticed my sexy tour guide and had daydreamed about fucking her. Now that must say something about the way the human brain is built. The more we advance in our analysis of the human brain, the more we will find Freud’s theories confirmed. Of that I am convinced. Until then, we might as well pretend to be interested by politics and art.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?
I think it doesn’t matter what genre you work in as long as the psychology of your characters is right. Horror films like Zemeckis‘ “What Lies Beneath” and Friedkin‘s “Exorcist” to me are great works of art. As are romantic comedies like Cameron Crowe‘s “Jerry Maguire” or Nancy Meyers‘ “Something’s Gotta Give.” Or action films like John Woo‘s “Face/Off” and Martin Brest‘s “Midnight Run.” I really don’t think in genre categories.
My next project is not set yet. I’ll probably go back into my monk’s cell and write myself a new screenplay. One thing I know for sure: it will have nothing to do with the Stasi or the Cold War.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
The word “Independent film” makes sense to me only if it means that the director has full artistic control. How could a film be independent otherwise? Even if the producers/financiers/studios almost never take a film away from a director, the fact that they could if they wanted to would force the director into an “artistic politeness” that would stand in the way of independence. I know that very well from East Germany: Until the Wall came down, the Dictatorship of the Proletariat had Final Cut on everything: novels, plays, films, even paintings. Make no mistake: hardly ever did they actually censor anything. But looking back at the art of those four decades, you can still feel the state in everything, and most of the art of that era is very impersonal and boring. Because the artists censored themselves, often without knowing it. I think that’s what happens with many directors, too, when they don’t have contractually guaranteed freedom.
What are some of your all-time favorite films, and what are some of your recent favorite films?
All time favourites: Kurosawa’s “Ikiru”, Kieslowski’s “A Short Film about Love”, Tornatore’s “They’re all fine”, Peter Weir’s “Truman Show”, Robert Zemeckis’ “Back to the Future (part 1)”, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”, Mikhalkov’s “Burnt by the Sun”, Minghella’s “Ripley”, Tom Tykwer’s “Run, Lola, Run!”
Recently I really liked “Ray”, Paul Haggis’ “Crash”, and of course “Volver” by Almodovar. I’m not the kind of person who goes for the very obscure little films. It’s like in literature: I’ll take Pushkin over Gogol any day. Or in painting: I prefer Titian to El Greco and could conceivably spend money on a Picasso but would never buy a Munch.
What are your interests outside of film?
Russian Literature (esp. 19th cent.), Women’s Magazines, African Tribal Art, Tennis and Psychoanalysis.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Write your own stuff. Don’t wait for great material to come to you. It won’t. If people have a really great script, they’ll give it to Christopher Nolan, or to David Fincher or Tim Burton. They won’t give it to someone who has only made a few shorts. So unless Richard Price or David Benioff owe you one, I suggest you just sit down, and sit down alone, to write that screenplay. Prove to yourself at least once that you can do it alone. It’ll do your confidence a world of good. You can always write in a team later. Elia Kazan only found that courage when he was well into his 50s. I often wonder what would have happened to his work if he had learned to trust his writing talent earlier.