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Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck on “The Lives of Others”

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By Michelle Orange

IFC News

[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?

[laughter] Borderline?

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).

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….


IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.


IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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