Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
As we head into Oscar weekend, I thought I would pull out an interview I did with Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who came to Seattle to promote The Lives of Others in February 2007. The film would go on to upset odds-on favorite Pan’s Labyrinth for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar—not a complete shocker, actually, as The Lives of Others is much more a traditional Oscar winner than Guillermo del Toro’s film.
The German director is nominated again in the Foreign Language category for Never Look Away, a very long (I mean 188 minutes’ worth) account of a young man growing out of the Nazi era and trying to be an artist in East Germany (and then, perhaps almost as challengingly, West Germany). The film opens March 8 in Seattle. It is, I am sorry to report, not good.
So, to happier times: A talk about The Lives of Others, a film born of von Donnersmarck’s irritation with the ostalgia craze, Germany’s fond flashback to the GDR. The piece originally ran in the Daily Herald.
Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck interview
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is almost as large as his name. The director, who visited the area recently on a publicity tour, is an exceedingly tall and gregarious fellow; the Internet Movie Database lists his height at 6’9”. He came to talk about his first feature, The Lives of Others, which swept Germany’s movie awards and snagged a nomination in the best foreign-language film Oscar category.
The 34-year-old filmmaker spoke English with just a trace of a German accent (he grew up partly in New York and went to university in England). His film details the paranoid world of East Germany under Communist rule, and examines the practices of the Stasi, the notorious secret police. We began, and ended, by talking about his irritation with recent German cinema that treats the East German years as comedy or “ostalgia” (nostalgia for the East).
Q: You have indicated that you find it strange that so many recent German films have looked back at East Germany by using comedy.
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: I just think that after all the struggles people put into liberating these countries, it’s so incredibly ungrateful for people to be longing for the East. But in a way it’s comprehensible. Let’s take Good Bye, Lenin! You have a film that really touched people, and I think it’s a really well-made film. But imagine if in 1960 someone had made a film about a Hitler Youth whose mother had fallen into a coma and wakes up in 1946 or something. And this guy creates a make-believe Nazi world for her. People wouldn’t have been so touched by that, you know? I think they would have found that very worrying. I’m not saying the G.D.R. (German Democratic Republic) killed six million Jews, but it was a dictatorship that killed and tortured its enemies. It’s worrying that a young generation is forgetting that.
Maybe it’s changed a little bit in Germany after my film. Before my film was made, I remember reading a survey, asking young people whether the G.D.R. was a dictatorship. And by an overwhelming majority they said, “No, no, no, a dictatorship, where would you get that idea?” And that was because of these films, because these films described it as a kind of quirky paradise. At the end of the day, it’s films that shape the view of something in a society. The way the Vietnam War will be remembered is through films like The Deer Hunter and Platoon. That’s just how opinion is made.
Q: Is that some kind of phase that had to happen because of people not wanting to confront what happened?
FHvD: Yeah, there’s an element of that. I think it’s also people who think they’re longing for the old system and actually they’re just nostalgic for their own youth. For being young.
People often don’t look at the whole picture. People say, “Well, things weren’t that bad for me.” And that’s just like saying, “I wasn’t a Jew. I wasn’t at the front. The Third Reich wasn’t that bad.” Well, OK, you happened not to be that bad off, but this is what this country did, and it’s out there. The information is known. You cannot just go from your own experience.
Q: The Lives of Others has a very specific design and feel. What were you aiming for?
FHvD: In films, I think it’s important that all elements be at exactly the same level. If you have music that’s in any way worse than production design, or sound design that’s lacking in some way, it’s going to destroy the whole film. I only enjoy films in which every single aspect is right. So I decided at an early point that no detail was less important than anything else.
I tried to find a certain color world that would reflect the G.D.R. I use many shades of green and gray and brown, but I don’t have any red or blue. So I stuck to a specific color scheme, which reflected my experience of the East and also of the Soviet Union, where I spent a long time. Also, I like films where the images are somehow iconic—not necessarily in the figurative meaning of that word, but in the literal sense. That the images would look like religious paintings.
Q: The film’s ear for paranoid dialogue, of people fearful of being overhead by the authorities, is very exact. How did you get into that mindset?
FHvD: You have to put yourself into those people while you do it. Not think to yourself, “How would someone behave in a situation like that?”, but “How do I behave in situations like that? Where is that scared citizen in me? Where is that sadistic Stasi captain in me?” You have to be really careful that it’s true–and the only thing you really know is true is what you know about yourself. You have to find those parts in yourself, and not assume that you are in any way superior to your characters. But also not inferior.
In German the word for “fiction” is the same as the word for “poetry.” It’s dichtung. And the word dichtung also pretty much means “density.” So I wanted to make a film that was really dense, really poetic, and true and fictional at the same time. That’s what I like about fiction, that you can somehow make things truer than true.
Q: When you were preparing this film, were people afraid of it, or reluctant to re-visit the subject?
FHvD: Sure. It took me five years to get this film made. People wanted more comedies. Actually, I was told when we went to get a major source of financing, “You can obviously write—why don’t you re-write this into a comedy and we’ll finance it?” Especially after Good Bye, Lenin! and Sonnenallee. These were the two really big successful films about the East. After that, people just wanted more of the same, and felt that was the way we should be dealing with the G.D.R.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.