By Michelle Orange
[Photo: “The Lives of Others,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2007]
When “The Lives of Others,” the spectacularly named Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s directorial debut, was nominated recently for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, it was just another notch in the belt for a film that’s been racking up laurels around the world. Von Donnersmarck’s gripping story of a playwright and the member of the Stasi police assigned to monitor him in 1984 East Germany finally opens in the U.S. this Friday. The writer/director’s parents come from East Germany, and though he grew up as one of the first non-criminal inhabitants of Roosevelt Island in New York City, he visited relatives in East Germany often, particularly after the family moved back to the West. The 33-year-old Von Donnersmarck, almost unreasonably tall, with a resplendent corona of blonde curls, was back in New York last week, affably battling jet lag to talk about his film.
Have you noticed that reactions to “The Lives of Others” vary from country to country?
Yes not a great deal, but there are a few things. In Japan they’re very interested in the musical aspect of the film, and American audiences do see parallels to the Patriot Act, and in Russia they find it most extraordinary that any of the Stasi people were brought to some kind of justice. In Spain they only go on about the fact that I beat Almodóvar at the European Film Awards.
The cinema itself seems to depend on the idea that we will invest emotionally in the lives of other people, on that human impulse do you feel the lack of that impulse, seemingly inherent in so many members of the Stasi police, is somehow inhuman?
I think there’s also a deep need in people to get information. You know how in the Harry Potter books, Harry has the invisibility cloak? In German mythology there’s also something like the invisibility cloak if you got an invisibility cloak, would you use it, or throw it away?
[long pause] I would use it.
And what would you use it for?
Well, I wouldn’t use it in a sort of fetishistic way, or to collect information for the sake of collecting information, a lot of it completely useless. There’s that scene in “The Lives of Others” where an officer is reporting in about a specific typewriter, and under questioning he can recite the exact model of typewriter owned by any given writer in East Germany it becomes ridiculous, it’s comical.
It’s very hard to separate one from the other there, to know when you’re crossing the line. For instance if I used the invisibility cloak and I went there into the next room and, I don’t know, watched some girl shower that would be borderline, huh?
But if I have an order that I have to monitor this woman, because she could be a terrorist, and I have to make sure that she isn’t engaging in some Islamic conversation on the phone while she’s in the bathroom, then I have to be there. Same effect, but same motivation? No, probably not. If you give a government that kind of power the Stasi had the invisibility cloak, George W. Bush, since the Patriot Act, has the invisibility cloak. He would never feel that they were using it for personal motives in any way, no, they are using it to “safeguard democracy.” But are they really? I don’t think you should give individuals great power, because as soon as you do that, you know the quote: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
What is your personal feeling, then, on where that line is?
I think no one should have that power. Of course it’s going to be easier to wage a war against the enemies of the state or even terrorism if you surveil people. But maybe that additional difficulty, if you’re not allowed to do that, is the price you have to pay for freedom. Let’s say you’re trying to wage a war against terrorism, imagine at that time in East Germany it was the war against imperialism or capitalism but let’s say in the US, where you have the Department of Homeland Security monitoring people, you said “let’s increase the man force to the number the Stasi had,” which was one person for every 50 inhabitants. In the United States, how many people are there?
I’m not positive I’m Canadian but I think it’s 300 million.
OK, for 300 million, that would mean somewhere around six million people working in surveillance. To be perfectly safe, you would have to say half of the population monitors the other half and then you’ll have zero terrorism. But you’ll also have nothing worth protecting left. And that’s the kind of extreme you’d have to take it to. No one ever said that freedom doesn’t come at a price. When Michael Moore compared Canada and the US in that NRA documentary [“Bowling for Columbine”], I thought it was very plain. He kept on going on about the 1500 people who died by accident because Americans feel they have to have guns, and I was thinking through all of that, it’s probably one of the prices you have to pay for freedom. Imagine the Jews in the Holocaust: do you think it would have been that easy for the Gestapo to go in there and take all of those Jews to Auschwitz if they had all been armed, if they had had Uzis under their beds? No, I don’t think so. Because of one act (of legislation) they had to pay a far greater price. Still, there is also a price for freedom: you’re not going to be as efficient in the war against terrorism, you’re not going to have as safe an environment for kids as you would if there were no guns around. Freedom is very precious, and I know you Canadians will take freedom over order any day. I was in Canada two weeks ago and a taxi driver said to me, “You know, the difference between us and the Americans is that they’ll take freedom over order any day and we’ll take order over freedom any day.”
I thought that was very interesting. He also said that Robin Williams said Canada is like a quiet apartment over a noisy party.
Are there any other German directors that have influenced you? Do you feel a certain responsibility to tell German stories on film as part of the process of understanding, or healing, the way a lot of the New German Expressionist directors, like Fassbinder, did?
Well, not like Fassbinder, no. I’d say some of the older German directors, like Fritz Lang, William Wyler, and Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder. I think films are essential for anything in culture; films are the most important cultural product of our time, and so, if you believe that culture and art can be important in healing, then film has to be most important. I think that in some way films are a kind of therapy, actually. If you make a film like “Remember the Titans” in the U.S., for example, you’re going to do more against racism than any campaign you could possibly launch.
Because it reaches more people?
Because it reaches them on a deeper level, also. Let’s say you write a book against racism, you can tell your story once, in words. To make a film you can tell it six or seven times, at the same time, through words, through lighting, through production design, through music, through sound. You can reach a far greater artistic and emotional intensity.
At the end of the film, when the Stasi Minister and Dreyden (a playwright) meet (after the fall of the wall), they have this very loaded and interesting exchange where the Minister says “life was good in our little country,” insinuating that they needed each other in a way, that without the Minister, there would be no Dreyden. I was wondering how you felt about that idea of artistry flourishing under repression.
Well, I don’t agree with that at all. Maybe I should have put a little disclaimer: “The views expressed by the characters of this film do not necessarily reflect the views of the director.”
You had mentioned that the films that came of East Germany during that period are kind of useless.
Yeah, and they really are. No, I don’t think that dictatorship makes art flourish at all. If you have a pseudo-liberal system where you pretend that art is free, but it’s actually under extreme censorship, the result is just going to be boring. It’s the same in Russia, actually. Not many great writers emerged from communist Russia, the Russian revolution pretty much killed them off.
OK, last question: The performances of your actors are so extraordinary, and the casting seems to be letter perfect, how did that process work for you?
It took a long time, because I knew exactly what actors I needed, and wanted, and I had to wait for them. They didn’t have to be stars, they just had to be very solid actors, and very intelligent people. These were very intelligent actors, and that is what helps you most. Some directors just meet their actors, they don’t actually cast them; they know from the meeting that they can work together.
Who did you cast first?
Ulrich Mühe (who plays Captain Wiesler). Actually no, that’s not true. The first person I knew I wanted on board was Ulrich Tukur, who plays Ulrich Mühe’s boss. I didn’t even know his work that well, but he was the first person I sent the screenplay to and I said “Look, I need you in this film.” It may have been because my wife was such a big fan of his, and I knew it would impress her if I got him for the film! These are very banal reasons, there’s no great artistry behind them. And Ulrich Mühe was the only person who could play that part, he’s an amazingly precise actor. For him it was a very big thing, to be cast in a lead role with an unknown director, so he invited me to his home, twice
He was casting you!
It’s true, he was. He quizzed me about how much I knew about the Stasi, and then toward the end, he said, “This character spends the entire film in the surveillance center in the attic, just sitting there, and is moved all the time, how do you play that? How do I act that?” I knew this was what it all boiled down to, this was the big question, and I might as well answer it honestly, so I said, “Maybe you don’t act it at all.” I guess he really liked that answer, and we were lucky after that.
“The Lives of Others” opens in limited release February 9th (official site).