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January 7, 2008

Circles and Squares

NYC critics celebrate Country; von Donnersmarck gets Blood-y

Circle of friends: (L-R) Daniel Day-Lewis, Marjane Satrapi, Sidney Lumet, Amy Adams and Charles Burnett arriving Sunday at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards (Photos: WireImage)

Don't ask me what happened behind closed doors at Sunday's New York Film Critics Circle awards dinner; The Reeler got the early, inglorious party-reporter heave-ho before anyone could actually present, accept or even acknowledge much of anything beyond the potency of their pre-show cocktails. It's not as though we didn't know the winners -- No Country For Old Men scored Best Picture last month -- but the vacuum of surprise is always filled in quite nicely by the likes of a self-effacing Sidney Lumet or a well-prepared Ethan Coen getting in the freshest dig he can against critics.

Alas. But there was always Amy Adams, who presented the top prize and did confess to me beforehand that she would use her position at the Coens' table to commandeer a role in their next film. And there was Killer of Sheep filmmaker Charles Burnett, choosing The Diving Bell and the Butterfly as his own favorite of 2007. New York Magazine critic David Edelstein agreed, while Voice critic Nathan Lee and I lamented Southland Tales' oversight among his NYFCC peers. Director Charles Ferguson, on hand to gather the hardware for his Best Documentary, No End in Sight, suggested that the sluggish box office associated with Iraq films may have a remedy in the personality of a successful release like Charlie Wilson's War. "I think it's heartening and interesting," he told The Reeler. "It's a film about a serious subject, and it says serious things. But it's also an entertaining, witty, funny film. And perhaps the purely box-office mistake that many Iraq films have made is that they're very serious films without any humor in them. That could be it."

I later caught up with Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose 2007 release The Lives of Others scored Best Foreign-Language Film almost a full year after winning a 2006 Oscar in the same category. I asked about his expertly calibrated milking technique and how he planned to carry Lives into late 2008 as well.

"I think it's pretty much over now," he laughed. "I know there's still the BAFTA coming, which I've been nominated for. I really want one of those beautiful masks. But I've decided that come Feb. 25, it's been one year since my Academy Award and I'm not going to do anything related to The Lives of Others anymore."

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But what of this remake I've been reading about -- the one the Weinsteins, Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella latched on to after the 2007 Oscar coup? "I have a producer's credit on it, but that's the full extent of my involvement," von Donnersmarck said. "I met many times with Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella, and we discussed the story and how it could be adapted, but I don't have any formal say so. They could turn it into a musical comedy if they wanted, and I couldn't stop it."

So has he followed its development at all? "Not very closely." He hesitated, carefully considering his words, stretching an "I" almost the full length of the room. "I'll find it fun to see what they do. Those guys are serious people, you know? I think they have some very good ideas of how they'll adapt it to an America that is shaken by another 9/11 and becomes totally paranoid. That's the setting for it. It's more inspired by my movie than a real remake. They're not going to East Germany and shooting it in English with Nicolas Cage. That's not what they're doing. So I think... It's going to be..." He paused again. "They're going to make a very serious film. I like it when people leave me my total freedom and don't try to interfere with what I make, so I don't want to be breathing down their neck, saying, 'What are you making of my masterpiece?' "

He chuckled. OK, sure. But in a perfect world, would there be just one Lives of Others?

"No," he said, this time without hesitation. "No. I don't understand this negative attitude that many intellectuals have toward remakes. Look how many films are made of Shakespeare plays. In a way, that's a remake. Look how often theater plays are staged. You just take an idea and adapt it to modern times and maybe make something more relevant. The reality is that unless the film is called Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it's very difficult to get people to see a foreign-language film in the United States. Maybe 2 million people have seen my film here; an English-language film might be 10 times that. And you have to be pragmatic as a filmmaker -- to make ideas and concepts accessible."

Lives of Others director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Fair enough. I hoped he'd at least admit he'd choreographed an even more enthusiastic victory lap than his memorably kinetic trot at the Oscars. He shook his head. "I know beforehand that I'm getting the award; people know that I'll come the awards a little more composed," he told me. "But I want to point out to people how much it means to me to have been deemed worthy by this supremely snobbish, intellectual group that is the New York Film Critics Circle. They're a tough crowd to please, and I feel very honored to be getting an award in the same ceremony where Daniel Day-Lewis is getting one for his performance [in There Will Be Blood]. Have you seen it?"

Well, yeah. It's like my favorite movie of the last... like, ever.

"I so totally agree with you," he said. In keeping with the reductionism of the evening, I asked von Donnersmarck if he was a Blood man or No Country man. He said he'd only seen the first few minutes of the Coens' film with his wife before the graphic violence compelled her to the exits with him in tow. It made him uncomfortable as well; he preferred the more psychological permutations of brutality spaced throughout There Will Be Blood.

"I can't judge based on five minutes of the movie, but I think it'll be impossible to outdo it in my heart," he told me. "It's a film for film history. I'm in the Academy now, so PTA has my vote. Is he here? Paul Thomas Anderson? Have you seen him?"

No, I said, but Day-Lewis would be there eventually. And when the actor did arrive, both to present Javier Bardem's supporting actor prize for No Country and collect his own Best Actor award for Blood, von Donnersmarck indeed cornered him while the rest of the room waited for a piece of him. It was a striking moment: the German auteur and the English Method man, batting about the concepts of discipline and psychology in Blood, all off the record and mostly out of earshot, mere yards away from a rabid press corps there to fĂȘte and feast on their very souls. I felt profoundly lucky, then guilty, then numb. Maybe it's best I left when I did.



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