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February 7, 2007

Lives in His Hands

German director von Donnersmarck on the art and politics of The Lives of Others

Ulrich Mühe as a Stasi operative in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others (Photos: Sony Pictures Classics)

The tension between ideologues’ political convictions and the emotional cost of making exceptions to the party line is the subject of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's feature debut The Lives Of Others and, in a different way, a tension for the tall, bespectacled German director himself. Von Donnersmarck speaks perfect, almost completely accent-less English (in part, the product of time spent at Oxford acquiring a philosophy degree) -- ideal for educating historically uninformed journalists to the roots of his film, which he nevertheless insists is neither a corrective to fading German memories of Communism nor an instructional primer for viewers abroad.

"I didn't want it to turn into some abstract political thing," he told The Reeler in a recent interview. "I just wanted to show the effects with these individuals. Since cinema speaks an international language, people are going to react to a film the same way all over the world."

Set in 1980s East Germany (officially recognized as the German Democratic Republic, or GDR), The Lives Of Others (opening Friday in New York) is admittedly informed by von Donnersmarck’s teenage memories of life under the dismal, cheerless reign of chancellor Erich Honecker: Colors are dull greens and browns, and the regime is placed in the odd position of trying to culturally compete with the West without officially acknowledging its aesthetic existence. Stasi agent Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) thrives in this cheerless environment, fulfilling his agency's mandate to root out dissidents and traitors, real and imagined, by spying on everyone and infiltrating mass society with agents. It's the movie's central conceit that this perfect state robot could be awakened to humanity after spying on a playwright (Sebastian Koch); a dubious premise on paper, but executed deftly in a classically styled narrative as eager to overstate key thematic points as it is patient and restrained in unfolding its story.

With its definitively anti-GDR stance, Lives acts as a retort to a recent wave of "Ostalgie" (a combination of the German words "Ost" - East - and "nostalgie") films that romanticize life in the GDR; the most notable example, at least for American viewers, was the successful Good Bye Lenin! "My idea was older," von Donnersmarck said. "I think Good Bye Lenin! came out in 2003; I had the idea for this film in 1997. But when Good Bye Lenin! came out -- and this was just one in a series of films of Ostalgie -- I felt that it was becoming even more important for me to make the film, because these things did distort the way that the GDR is viewed and that the whole Communist dictatorship is viewed. People like that -- just the idea that it was just this funny place. They've done some surveys among young people recently -- before my film came out, I have to add -- where they asked them 'Was the GDR a dictatorship?' And the kids said, 'No, no, of course not. Why would you say that?'

"That shows how effective the portrayal of the GDR is this funny, quirky place," he continued. "(It) was by these films. A lot of people have a vested interest in portraying that time as not as bad as people would want to think it was."

Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (Photos: Sony Pictures Classics)

Von Donnersmarck explores related paradoxes in Lives -- for example, whether the volume of Brecht's poetry that Wiesler picks up at a key moment in his redemption is merely an example of aesthetics trumping politics or invoking Brecht's politics for greater resonance. "Brecht first of all is just a great poet,” von Donnersmarck said. “But then he was also someone who lived continuously with this dilemma of somehow theoretically embracing Communism but practically just seeing the awfulness that it was leading to. There's this one beautiful poem of his where he asks forgiveness of the future generations for all the terrible things they did in the name of Communism. And at the same time, he chose to be in the GDR, but then led this strange life between the US and the GDR. There was no one else who had that weird dual existence."

The filmmaker also pondered the far less successful pro-GDR products of the regime: the work of artists without Brecht’s liberty. The irony of the story is that Wiesler is absolved by the playwright he spies on, even as the playwright is unaware that his seemingly protected status as a state artist is a sham; his work -- “our only non-subversive writer who is also read in the West,” one agent notes -- is a convenient fiction that makes the plot tick, but doesn’t accord with the reality of von Donnersmarck’s experience.

"It's one of the things that is most terrible about these dictatorships," he told me. "Think of these 40 years of art production, and there are maybe two or three films you can still watch, maybe two or three novels, if that, and maybe a couple of plays, and that's it. Everything is available still, but it's just without any interest. And why is that? Because it was always living in reference to the present political state of things, because people censored themselves. It wasn't even that every piece went through censorship, and therefore they took the best piece out. No, people developed a kind of weird politeness in their art, which was of course destructive to the very essence of art."

The Lives of Others itself is relatively polite and restrained, but no matter; again, its unambiguous political bite speaks more boldly than its maker. Which is probably as it should be: von Donnersmarck’s film is about the necessity of artists speaking out against repressive regimes. Now that the East has fallen, it would be against his purpose to make a statement as strong as that of his fictional playwright. The film itself is enough.



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