Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on February 5, 2017
FilmStruck has five titles available to view as part of a Behind the Iron Curtain theme. I originally set out to write about Barbara (2012) as it’s an interesting and unfairly overlooked gem dealing with a family doctor banished from East Berlin to a rural community. I still have a great poster for Barbara showing her riding a bike against a dark green backdrop of grass and trees, casting a suspicious look behind her. I’m shifting gears, however, and delving instead into The Lives of Others (2006). The Lives of Others won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year and was a box office success story. Deservedly so, as it’s a rich and poignant film full of universal truths. It’s also that rare film with humanistic traits that elevate human welfare and art without resorting to treacle. It’s a movie that celebrates music, poetry, literature, and it culminates with both epiphany and the celebration of human dignity, sealed with a perfect ending – one that still brings a tear to my eye.
Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck was born in 1973 in West Germany to a globetrotting aristocratic family and is a polyglot who can speak five languages. At six feet and eight inches in height, I imagine he strikes quite an impressive pose. It was at a 1977 MoMA screening of Varieté, a German silent film drama from 1925 directed by Ewald André Dupont, that the four or five year old Donnersmarck got the film bug. He had mistakenly expected to see Doctor Dolittle (1967), and instead walked into a story about a trapeze artist, circus life, erotic side-shows, betrayals and seduction. Would two and a half hours with Dr. John Dolittle have inspired him in similar ways? We’ll never know, although it’s interesting to think about how his first short film revolves around a man being chased by a dog.
Donnersmarck studied at the same Munich film school that is alma mater to Wim Wenders, and his first foray into the world of film festivals came with an award-winning short student film called Dobermann (1999). Dobermann has a running time of four minutes and Donnersmarck wrote, produced, edited and directed. Four other names get a credit, for music, cinematography and one actor: Phillipp Kewenig, who would also get a small role in Das Leben der Anderen (aka: The Lives of Others) seven years later. From a four minute short to a 137-minute Oscar-winning thriller, that’s one helluva a jump.
The Lives of Others takes place during the Cold War and revolves around an East German playwright, George Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), who is being spied upon by a Stasi official, Haputmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), aka: HGW WW/7. At this point I’d like to cut to an excerpt from Jim Palmer’s essay “The Lives of Others and the Individuation of HGW XX/7,” which includes an astonishing footnote:
Donnersmarck’s auspicious film debut took three years to make and paid great attention to detail, using actual Stasi equipment and props on loan from museums and private collections. The director was not alone in this desire, as the props master, a man who had been held in a Stasi prison for two years, also insisted on authenticity. I can only guess at the kind of déjà vu shock former East Germans might have received upon watching this film. And speaking of déjà vu, with all the fear-mongering going on nowadays, talk of building a giant wall, “alternative facts,” and N.S.A. surveillance of public communications and emails, The Lives of Others remains extremely relevant. Perhaps that’s why it’s not surprising to learn that Donnersmarck, who has been largely quiet other than a slight detour with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie (The Tourist, 2010), now has three projects in development this year, including a remake of The Lives of Others.
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