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‘Lives of Others’ stirred debate in Germany

Film gives a rare look at East Germany before the Berlin Wall fell
/ Source: The Associated Press

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is a little relieved to be taking “The Lives of Others” outside Germany, where people responded emotionally and lavished the movie with seven Lolas (the country’s equivalent of the Academy Awards).

Now that it’s arriving in the U.S., he’s hopeful it will be seen more as a movie than a springboard for reflection on its setting: the communist German Democratic Republic, or East Germany.

“I think it’s more important to show ‘Schindler’s List’ to people who have not lived through the Holocaust,” says the film’s 33-year-old writer-director.

“The Lives of Others,” nominated for a best foreign-language Oscar, bears some resemblance to Steven Spielberg’s film in that both deal with an exceptional and hopeful story amidst a dark time. In this case, the setting is 1984 East Berlin, which like the rest of the GDR, was monitored obsessively by the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi.

In the Stasi’s employ, at its height, were 90,000 officers and about 170,000 informants to spy on the country’s 16.7 million citizens.

A look inside former East Germany“The Lives of Others” centers on a Stasi agent (Ulrich Muhe) who, while spying on a playwright (Sebastian Koch) and his live-in actress-girlfriend (Martina Gedeck), slowly begins to be converted by their loving, artistic way of life.

It’s a period that had not been properly confronted by Germany since it was unified in 1990. Films such as the 2003 comedy “Goodbye, Lenin!” recalled the time sentimentally; there is even a German word for nostalgia for the era: “Ostalgie.”

“‘The Lives of Others’ is the first film that puts the work of the Stasi at the center of its plot,” said the Frankfurt newspaper Allgemeine Zeitung. “This is not just a revelation of a theme; this is the revelation of the GDR itself.”

It’s also a revelation of a new talent: the cordial, intellectual, 6-foot-9-inch Henckel von Donnersmarck.

In his first feature film, he’s made a movie that The New Yorker critic Anthony Lane says should win the Oscar “if there is any justice.” (It’s a notable wish considering “The Lives of Others” is up against Guillermo del Torro’s acclaimed “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which is nominated for six Oscars.)

“In a way, I almost prefer showing [the movie] outside of Eastern Germany because I didn’t like that whole thing about guilt or hurt over real memories,” the director says. “That’s not necessarily for me the main purpose of the whole thing. I think it’s better when people can decide themselves how much they want a piece of art to affect them and not for that to be determined just by their specific biography.”

Henckel von Donnersmarck’s biography is an international one. He was born in Cologne, Germany, to parents of noble lineage, and moved when he was 2 to New York. They moved to West Berlin in 1981 (though he was only 8, he has a vivid memory of the palpable sense of fear then in East Berlin) and later on to Frankfurt and Brussels.

He wonders if the frequent uprooting is comparable to how being a sickly child helped Martin Scorsese develop a director’s perspective: “Maybe it was like that for me with moving so much. You never quite lost the perspective of the observer and the outsider.”

For his first 20 years, he wanted to be a novelist and spent two years in Russia, working to read Russian literature in its native language. But by the time he entered Oxford, film was his focus. When director Richard Attenborough (“Gandhi,” “Chaplin”) came along as a guest professor, he won an essay contest that got him a job on the set of Attenborough’s “In Love and War.”

It was a watershed moment for Henckel von Donnersmarck, who used the experience to set a high standard for himself.

“I think it is a matter of what are you willing to accept, what are you willing to sign with your name,” he says.

Forced to face his own humanity“The Lives of Others” originated in a quotation Henckel von Donnersmark read where Vladimir Lenin told Maxim Gorky of how Beethoven’s “Appassionata” could soften him up too much: “It affects my nerves. I want to say sweet, silly things and pat the heads of people.”

“I just at that moment thought to myself, ‘OK, I’m going to make you listen to the “Appassionata.” I’ll force you, man,”’ says Henckel von Donnersmarck. “That was the beginning of it, about being forced to face your own humanity.”

The filmmaker spent a year and half researching the movie, interviewing former Stasi officials and victims, as well as watching old Stasi training videos. (Sleep deprivation was a prime tool for extracting information.) The history was often not distant: Muhe’s wife, actress Jenny Grollmann, had been registered as an informant throughout their marriage.

Still, in conversation Henckel von Donnersmarck is more himself discussing film than geopolitical history. He veers from “Citizen Kane” to “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” making it clear he sees movies as borderless.

“I was always very comforted the film did just as well in Western Germany as it did in Eastern Germany,” he says. “If it had only done well in Eastern Germany, that would have embarrassed me as a filmmaker.”

The movie’s ending stems from Henckel von Donnersmarck’s belief that a film’s conclusion should always be a little better than the rest of it. He compares the final touch to, of all things, the runway at the airport in Telluride, Colo., which ramps upward at the end.

“I always thought that little, hardly visible ramp made you fly upward and I think in a way, that’s how films should be for the viewer.”