Interview with
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck


Story, Interview and PhotographyFlorian Henckel von Donnersmarck
By Stephen Ashton

The lounge of the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel seemed a fitting setting to interview the young German director about his cautionary new film THE LIVES OF OTHERS. It had just been screened in AFI FEST, but the story is an old one: political paranoia and suppression of civil liberties. The walls of this hotel, if they had ears and voices, could tell similar tales from Hollywood’s darkest hour… the Blacklist years. I had the chance to discuss it with Florian Henckle von Donnersmarck.

Stephen Ashton: Your film is quite an astounding piece of work especially for a first feature.  What was your background?

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck:   I studied at Munich film school and made a lot of short films. My first encounter with film was in 1996 when I was an intern with Richard Attenborough. He was my first mentor. I originally wanted to be a producer, but it became clear to me that I would really have to be a director because I was so concerned about the details. Early on I wanted to be a novelist, but soon I realized that cinema is the art form of our times.  I think you can reach people so much more intensely in film.  You get to use so many different art forms.

I had a great conversation the other day with Sony’s Amy Pascal and she said it so beautifully… “The great thing about films is that you get to tell your story SIX TIMES. You get to tell it through the writing, you get to tell it through the actors, through the music, through the production design (art direction), you get to tell it through the costumes and of course you get to tell it through the images.”  She is quite a philosopher of film actually.

SA: And a poet…

F :   Yes really. I have been thinking about that ever since she said that yesterday, and it is so true. That is why filmmaking is such a satisfying experience, because you get to explore so many different facets of art.

SA :  Yes, that is really what is amazing about cinema, particularly when the storytelling is practically dialog free, relying mostly on images… and it is even more effective. John Ford would tear pages out of the script right on the set telling the actors that they could get the scene across best by just using gestures and action, non verbal visual means.

F: Right, and if an actor doesn’t feel that his lines are right we have to respect that and respond.

SA: Well, this is a massive kind of a story to tell. Especially for your first feature. It had to be spot on accurate historically, or you could be su

F: Right, looking back to the 20th Century, it is century of ideologies. And I still think we are suffering from ideology. Even after the end of the cold war… Islam is an ideology. I started to think about “what is ideology”

SA: Yes, it’s like Socialism faded out and Islam came to rise… as if people have a deep need for something to stand for… for principles or ideology.

F: Yeah. Exactly. I realized that ideology is just principle taken too far. Principle without feeling.  Without compassion. If you only pay attention to your principles, without considering your feelings – then, that’s it – you are an idealog.  If Osama Bin Laden did not just think about what he thinks are his principles, but started thinking about his feeling, about compassion, then he could not be able to commit these atrocities.

I thought that would be an interesting theme to explore. Just the question of how people lean more to the side of principle or to the side of feeling. That’s a decision every one of us has to make every day. I do see ideology as something very very dangerous.

Even today, in the case of Bush, for example, I have tried for a long time to understand for a long time… he uses a language of ideology to justify his actions, and that is something he should not do. The great thing about America has always been the kind of diversity and freedom of opinion here. There is not a single ideology. I think he should also use a language of feeling and compassion.

SA: Language is a very important thing historically, you know, how something is characterized. In your film you have a scene that refers to a theatre director who the protagonist says is “Blacklisted.”  And he is criticized for using this term… even though it is obvious that the director has been prevented from working because of his views. That’s a very incendiary idea, with these very walls of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, which witnessed one of America’s darkest moments during the Hollywood Blacklist.

F: Exactly, during the McCarthy era in the US you had it too.

SA: I would imagine that it was a very hot button in East Germany where they could criticize the US for its infringements on civil liberties, right? Isn’t it also a bell-weather for today’s crackdown of civil liberties in the era of the “Patriot” Act? Although set in communist East Germany I think your film is incredibly timely.

F: Yes exactly. Writers, artists are supposed to be the ones who are safeguarding freedom and our liberties.

I think that it is vitally important when you see the very beginnings of infringements you have to fight it. It should be fought by your profession, the journalists and by the filmmakers and artists.

SA: Although there is the fear of something like a terrorist attack, it is also a pretense which can be used by political forces to crack down on personal freedom and civil liberties.

F: Well, I think… Being from a country that has seen just how far things can go, I think it is so important to understand that FREEDOM, especially here in the United States where freedom is more profound than any where in the world, that’s just the tradition of this country. That freedom also comes at a price… you have to accept that it might be a little more difficult to find potential terrorists because the government or police do NOT have the right to surveille every single individual. Of course its going to be easier to find a terrorist if you go totally to a “BIG BROTHER” state whose sole intention is to prevent terrorist attacks is going to be successful, but then what’s the point if you are going to turn your Free Society into a Police State (where everyone is spied on and is riddled with informers.)

You don’t want to give up Freedom in order to defend it.

I am not a friend of a strong executive branch of government.

I know that America is moving away from the right to bear arms for example. I see that as a danger. If you take Germany, we don’t have the right to bear arms. The government has a monopoly on the right to use force. Is this right?

There is a price to pay for these things.

SA the right to bear arms is logical particularly if the arms are used in a way to protect your liberties. So if there is a military force, as there has been in many latin american countries and in eastern europe and elsewhere, then you may need to bear arms to defend your liberty, but that presumes that there is a “conversation” in the society about what the LIBERTIES ARE… that there is a reason to bear the arms.

F: Right, you never know when that is going to come upon you. Do think that the Jews in Germany had an idea about what was coming? You see it would have been necessary to empower the individual. I have faith in the individual. I think that that is the great strenght of the United States… the great faith in the individual.

In Germany for example everything is take so far. In Germany people don’t make voluntary contributions to the church. An obligitory “Church Tax” is taken from your yearly income. You just fill in what religion you belong to, and it is taken from you and given to them. You have no choice in the matter. It’s like everything is regulated by the government and it’s not a good thing. It makes people very passive. It makes people stop thinking of themselves as masters of their own fate. And the great thing is that in free countries you can be master of your own fate.

Both Ziggi (his publicist) and I know about this. Ziggi left Poland during martial Law.

SA: Well, specifically about your film. You have a main character, a STASI secret police guy who is spying on the protagonist. They have every room of his house bugged and every sound is listened to personally. It is frightening. Then he has a change of heart and protects the family. Tell me about the motivation of that character, how and why you put that in.

F: I wanted to him to transform from a man who was blocking out his feelings to a person who realizes that he can’t do that long term. I wanted to it not be one pivotal point for him, like you are supposed to do according to screen writing text booksI wanted it to be a gradual continous transformation, almost like a mid-life crisis,  like it is in real life. I wanted him to realize on the one hand, on the STASI side, his friend and colleague who was always a little less loyal and less intelligent always moved ahead in his career. And on the enemies of the State are not much of an enemy at all, that they are (pausing, as if to see them in front of him, feeling for them) normal people.  And at the same time he is moved by the discovery of music and poetry… things he has never head that way before.

All of this acts upon him slowly. First he is a Passive Hero, He begins to withhold details… personal details of their lives. And then he thinks about maybe betraying them after all.  He is almost an Accidental Hero. He is not a Hero in shining armor who fights for the good of all. I think that that is what all heroism is really. It just comes upon us and is drawn out of us.