The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others

Though you may not know it, Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck is the talk of the festival. His film, The Lives of Others, about an author living in the German Democratic Republic in the early 1980s and the Stasi captain who has bugged his apartment, has been tagged as one of the finest feature debut in years. It is the first German film since the collapse of the Berlin Wall to seriously address the extent to which the Stasi monitored the lives of the country’s citizens.

As lead actor Ulrich Mühe explains, Germany wasn’t ready for a film on this subject until very recently. “You have to let time pass and create distance from such historical events,” he explains. “This distance is necessary to create a valid account. After 1945, there was a handful of directors who made films about the period, films like The Murderers are Among Us. But we had to really wait until another generation of filmmakers came along, the generation of Fassbinder, to interrogate the past with distance and a new set of aesthetic and ideological tools.”

Mühe—a legend of German stage and screen—worked in East Germany under the GDR. He knew about the methods of the Stasi firsthand. The actor had seen hundreds of scripts about the period cross his desk over the years, but it wasn’t until Von Donnersmarck’s landed there that he felt inclined to sign on.

“Florien belongs to a generation of filmmakers who are working free of ideology—or at least as free as they can be,” Mühe says. “They don’t have an ideological agenda that they are trying to apply. Those other scripts aimed at sensation, but The Lives of Others was so intelligent and touching. It was dry-eyed about the period, but it had great heart as well.”

Von Donnersmarck is a blue blood and, though his mother was born in East Germany, a Westerner. While obtaining a degree in politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, Von Donnersmarck was compelled to pursue directing. There, a prize-winning essay won him a directing internship with visiting professor Richard Attenborough (Gandhi). Von Donnersmarck became obsessed with the medium, especially its ability to arouse hope in the viewer.

Though Von Donnersmarck spent a year-and-a-half researching the film, The Lives of Others is not a strictly historical account. “I didn’t want to tell a true story as much as explore how someone might have behaved,” he says. “The film is more of a basic expression of belief in humanity than an account of what actually happened.”

Mühe plays Weisler, a man obsessed with ferreting out enemies of the state. He is a cold-blooded master of interrogation, adoring the psychological cat-and-mouse game that leads to confession. One day, he is entrusted with digging up dirt on Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a playwright who has heretofore toed the state line. As he sits in the attic of Dreyman’s apartment, listening in on Dreyman’s most intimate moments, he begins to question the machinery of the state.

Weisler’s transformation is the film’s real story. But, having combed through Stasi records, Von Donnersmarck knows that no historical figure ever acted as such. “The only incidents we know about are the ones where people were thinking of leaving and were then executed,” the director explains. “The only reason Weisler is not executed is because his superior happens to have been a friend.”

Von Donnersmarck came to the project after reading Russian writer Maxime Gorky recount a conversation he once had with Vladimir Lenin. “Lenin once said to him, ‘I don’t want to listen to Beethoven’s Impassionata anymore, even though it’s my favourite piece of music. If I listen to it, I will want to stroke people’s heads and say friendly things to them. I have to smash in those heads to finish my revolution.”

After reading that, Von Donnersmarck wondered if he might be able to create a fictionalized situation where Lenin was forced to listen to the Impassionata. After playing with the idea for awhile, he shrunk it down a little, Lenin becoming Weisler and the Impassionata becoming the sonata that the captain hears Dreyman play after a friend’s suicide (the sonata was written by long-time Anthony Minghella composer Gabriel Yared).

The film is a masterpiece. It’s intelligent, perfectly constructed and magnificently acted. Mühe gives a tour-de-force performance. I can’t recall the last time I watched an actor’s face and felt as though I could actually see them thinking. As he listens to Yared’s piece, we see Mühe’s Weisler melt before our eyes. The tension and subtext of a single scene in which Weisler summons a confession from Dreyman’s girlfriend alone makes The Lives of Others required viewing.

Von Donnersmarck spent six years on the film. He claims he’d like to get to work on an erotic thriller, but hasn’t put pen to paper yet. Hopefully it won’t be another six years before we see something from him again.