Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Learning from History in the Lives of Others: An Interview with Writer/Director Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Learning from History in the Lives of Others: An Interview with Writer/Director Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck

Article excerpt

AFTER THE FALL OF THE Berlin wall on 9 November 1989, previously guarded details about the repressive East German regime gradually became accessible. Most importantly, the passage of the 1991 Sfos/ Records Act permitted access to the most appalling and revealing files of the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (MfS) [Ministry for State Security]. Called the Stasi (a nickname taken from Staatssicherheit), the East German secret police, from their headquarters in East Berlin, maintained an extensive surveillance network with agents and informants infiltrating virtually every aspect of public and private life.

A firsthand witness as a young, uncomprehending boy to the emotional impact of the Sfos/, writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck remembered trips from his home in West Germany to visit relatives in East Berlin:

As a boy of eight, nine orten, I found it interesting and exciting to feel the fear of adults. My parents were afraid when they crossed the border: they were both born in the East and thus were more closely controlled by the police. And our friends from East Germany were afraid when other people saw that they were speaking with us, Germans from the West. (Sony 8)

With his haunting memories as the catalyst, von Donnersmarck spent four years researching events and then six weeks writing a preliminary screenplay while residing in a twelfth-century monk's cell in a Cistercian monastery in the Vienna Woods where his uncle was Abbot. From his recollections and his research, von Donnersmarck constructed the suspenseful, heartbreaking Das Leben der Anderen [The Lives of Others].

The Lives of Others begins and takes place primarily in 1984, ending in 1991 with an ironic twist and an overwhelming final scene with an earned, lasting impact. Von Donnersmarck eschews distracting adornment and what would be easy sensationalizing of Stasi activities. The film's understatement of the frightening incidents and of abhorrent behavior, and the actors' restraint in presenting their characters, cuts laser-like to the truth.

The story juxtaposes two self-deluded Individuals: Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) and playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), the former blinded by his Stasi allegiance and the latter by the naive belief that his personal life is immune to violation. In early scenes, Wiesler conscientiously performs his job as a Stasi surveillance expert and instructor in skillful interrogation interpretation. Disciplined and uncompromising, he shows visible distaste when a colleague arrives late for his stakeout shift. Wlesler's reaction reaffirms his character's initially inflexible attitudes and rigid ideology in a narrative that revolves entirely around surreptitious observation.

Wiesler is the lynchpin when former classmate Lieutenant Colonel Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), head of the State Security Culture Department, assigns him to supervise full-scale surveillance of Dreyman. Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) has initiated the investigation through comments to Grubitz that Dreyman is not, perhaps, as politically loyal to the Socialist Unity Party as some assume. However, Hempf's real motivation lies elsewhere, in his sexual interest in Dreyman's girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Hempf's personal desire trumps ethical integrity. Ironically, Wiesler does soon learn of subversive activities by Dreyman and his activist friends. The suicide of their harassed friend, theater director Albert Jerska (Volkmar Kleinen), unofficially blacklisted by the GDR for seven years and unable to practice his profession, has energized their resistance.

But the surveillance began before Jerska's suicide, when the Stasi technical crew concealed microphones in several locations in Georg and Christa-Maria's apartment. Everything that transpires can be overheard by the Stasi team, who maintain 24-hour shifts from the attic of Dreyman's apartment building. …

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