Von Donnersmarck's Oscar-nominated "The Lives of Others"

Miljenko Skoknic February 12, 2007

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s debut feature, “The Lives of Others,” has won numerous awards, among others, 7 Lola Awards (the German equivalent of the Oscars), including Best Picture. It is now competing for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award and opens in Bay Area theaters this Friday. We spoke with him when he visited San Francisco this January.

SF360: What motivated you to make the ‘The Lives of Others’?

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: I just happened to have the idea for the story; that idea came to me when pondering a Lenin quote where he told his friend Maxim Gorky about Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ [paraphrasing] It may be my favorite piece of music, but I don’t want to listen to it any more, because it makes me want to stroke people’s heads and tell them sweet, nice stupid things, and I have to smash in those heads; smash them in without mercy in order to finish my revolution. So I thought, is there a way I could force Lenin to listen to the ‘Appasionata’ in a film just as he was getting ready to bash in somebody’s head, and, you know, Lenin turned into Ulrich Mühe’s character, and the ‘Appasionata’ turned into Gabriel Yared’s music [‘Sonata for a Good Man’], and that’s how the film came about. It wasn’t, ‘I want to make a film about the GDR and about the Stasi.’ I wanted to make a film about a person who changes from an ideologue to a humanist.

SF360: There’s a recurring use of wide angles, and very few establishing shots: how did you conceptualize those visual treatment?

Von Donnersmarck: For me, it’s really important that something not be disorientating. One of my greatest problems in life is that I get lost in places quite easily — so it’s very important to me that a film have a very clear and good orientation; I will plan [the space] very minutely, so I have a very exact shot list before I go into a film, [prepared] with drawings and floor plans and everything. So once I have the exact blocking, I try to think it through and see: Will the viewer understand what the geography of this place is? And if I’m satisfied with that, I won’t necessarily go for the establishing shot. I’ll only go with it if it’s important to do that. In the [first] theater scene, it would have been tempting to go for an establishing shot, and our producers were furious because they said: ‘We paid for these 500 extras and you don’t even feel that.’ But I didn’t just want to go for one of those shots, from the stage, over the entire [space] just to give you that feeling, ‘Wow there’s a lot of people, that must have cost a lot of money’. I wanted to keep the perspective of the characters. I really think it was better that way. Although generally, of course, it’s nice if you can feel a certain grandeur; but it wasn’t appropriate at that exact point, so in terms of traditional blocking that was a slight breach, but I still felt you could understand were people were sitting, what was what. In that case, it was more important for me to keep the psychological perspective, [rather] than to go with an establishing shot; and it might feel a little tight because it’s mainly indoors.

SF360: As you had mentioned in previous interviews, a lot of the actors were interrogated and had files kept by the Stasi. When you were rehearsing with the actors, working with the scenes and the characters’ motivations, did you voluntarily invoke their past experiences as political prisoners? How did you manage that process?

Von Donnersmarck: I didn’t know that this was Ulrich Mühe’s past when I asked him to play the role, I just felt that he was the right person to play it. But maybe the fact that I felt he was right for the part had something to do with the fact that I sensed there was something there — a certain understanding for [the role]. I was even a little surprised on how fast he agreed to play the role. I’m very glad, of course.

It all seemed to fit together. I do feel that in these matters — in casting decisions, in who I take for department heads — that there’s a truth there: I do think that it’s not an arbitrary decision you make: this guy’s not available, let’s have someone else. I went to my editor and I told her: ‘Look, you have to edit this film. /either you edit it or I have to edit it myself, because there’s no one else that can do it,’ because she’s the most brilliant editor working in Germany. And then she had to say: ‘OK, I’ll do it.’ [Laughs.] [It was’ the same way with the actors, the same way with the composer (Gabriel Yared). He was someone who was really far from my world; his music for ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ was just incredible, and it really made me appreciate the film.

SF360: Speaking of Gabriel Yared’s music: Why did you have him write the the piece ‘Sonata for a Good Man’, played by Sebastian Koch’s character in the film?

Von Donnersmarck: At first I tried using a classical piece, but nothing worked. It was really weird, it just seemed odd. Because if you have something which was very touching in the way that it would have to be [for the film], it just seemed too unknown, because a classical piece that moves you deeply is going to be known.

SF360: And all the connotations along with it.

Von Donnersmarck: Yes, and lots of associations; like if you’ve heard it in a car commercial for Audi, for instance, and you don’t want that. But if I used something which was not [well] known and was classical, in a way, it wasn’t really good. So I ended up saying: ‘Look, Gabriel Yared is every bit as good a composer as Shostakovitch or even Brahms; so why not have him write something?’ And he spent a long time writing that piece. I remember when he wrote it I thought, ‘No, no, this isn’t it,’ because I thought it was not sweet enough, it not beautiful enough, it [was] too challenging. I could see that it was really interesting, deeply musical, profound and it expressed a lot, but no, no.

Gabriel was really disappointed because he spent a lot of time on it. So he wrote me and said: ‘Look Florian, you must come to London now, because I’ve written what I think is the best [piece] I’ve written in years.’ I was really excited because, you know, ‘the best thing he’s written in years,’ so then I [went to London] and [I wasn’t convinced it was the piece for the film]. So then he said, ‘OK, look, tell me concretely what you want,’ [but] then he described to me exactly what I wanted: something that was as beautiful as the ‘Moonlight Sonata’ by Beethoven, but just not as well known. And he wrote me a few of these pieces, and they’re actually amazing, but I ended up always returning to his first idea, because [the latter pieces] were actually too sweet, and it was suddenly entering into competition with the actual film score, which already pursues that purpose of being beautiful, uplifting and emotional. It became more and more clear to me that I actually needed something that felt real and powerful, that [felt like] actual art.

SF360: I would have never guessed it was Gabriel Yared’s piece. He did a great job in displacing it from what you’d consider a contemporary piece, it sounded very mid-century.

Von Donnersmarck: Then I remember presenting it to my actor (Sebastian Koch), and he said: ‘This is the character.’ It’s funny, because he then said: ‘I want to play this,’ yet he didn’t know [how to play the piano]. And it was a very complicated piece. So I said, ‘Look, just learn a few bars.’ I always feel you have to see them once playing; it just feels stupid if they do like this [mimicks playing], and you always see them from behind the piano. He wanted to learn the whole thing. So I said OK, you have 8 weeks, and we had this really great piano teacher. And he started playing and playing, and by the time we arrived to the shoot he could play it perfectly well, and now [Koch] bought a piano — this huge pianoforte — and when guests come, he will play this amazing piece for them. And then they’ll say, ‘Wow, that’s great! Play us something else.’ But he’ll say, ‘That’s all I can play.’ [Laughs.] Just one piece, this really complicated sonatina.

SF360: I’m afraid I am not familiar with other contemporary German films, but I wanted to know how you envision your film as helping with the reconciliation of the once-divided German society?

Von Donnersmarck: I hope that in the West it has helped people understand the pressures the people of the East were once under, and to hopefully muster some understanding for that. I think that in the East it helps people face their own past; I could feel that happening, when we were presenting our film in the East; people’s reactions were extremely emotional. At times, it was pretty exhausting; they sat there crying for half and hour, and told us their terrible stories of what they’d suffered through. Or some came up to us and started justifying themselves for something they had done, almost like seeking absolution, and I said: ‘Look, I’m no priest, I can’t give out absolution, but I’m glad the film has set something in motion,’ you know? I think it was one of the few films that did equally well in the East as well as in the West, or in the West as in the East. So that’s an unusual thing, in that way, it brought the people together. Because normally films, even an American blockbuster, will perform very differently in the East and in the West; sometimes it’s more successful in the East, and sometimes more successful in the West. But this time it was balanced, and people were really surprised by that.

SF360: The classic closing question: what future projects are you interested in now?

Von Donnersmarck: I can only write in great peace and quiet, and so far I’m travelling to various festivals and countries where the film’s being released, and so I’m not really finding the peace and quiet I need [in order to] write. And I will do that probably around