That magic moment in a film director’s career comes but once. It’s after audiences have responded rapturously to your breakout film, and before you have to get serious about topping that success.
Oxford-educated German writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has been reveling in his extended magic time ever since “The Lives of Others” — a drama set in 1980s East Germany about a Stasi officer who bugs the apartment of a successful theater director and his actress wife — opened in Germany in March. By the time the director settled his long legs into a corner booth at Hollywood’s famous Musso & Frank Grill for a pre-Thanksgiving interview in flawless American English — he lived in Manhattan for six years as a boy when his father worked at Lufthansa Airlines — his debut feature had already topped 1.6 million admissions in Germany.
Sony Pictures Classics acquired “Others” for North America in May; the film won Bavarian Film Awards for best picture, actor and screenplay; it has been nominated for six European Film Awards; and it is Germany’s official Oscar submission. Even in this unusually competitive year for foreign films, “Others” — which starts its one-week Oscar-qualifying run today– emerged from the Telluride and Toronto festivals as a critics’ favorite.
CAA agent Beth Swofford, who represents such directors as Peter Weir, Sam Mendes and Stephen Daldry, chased down “Others” in Berlin, signed Henckel von Donnersmarck and is now setting up meetings for her client around town. At the interview, Henckel von Donnersmarck is eating a Spartan fruit salad inspired by his previous day’s confab with super-fit superstar Brad Pitt. The director has arrived.
The nugget of the idea behind “Others” came to the writer in 1997 when he was a desperate first-year student at Munich Film School. The deadline was looming to deliver his 12th proposal to his film professor, who demanded that his pupils hand in 14 original treatments in the first eight weeks. Lying on the floor of his aunt’s house, listening to a Beethoven piano sonata, Henckel von Donnersmarck feared that his imagination had run dry. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt under so much pressure in my life,” he recalls. He thought about Russian revolutionary Maxim Gorky, who said he couldn’t listen to Beethoven’s “Appassionata” because he had to smash heads.
What if, Henckel von Donnersmarck wondered, Lenin had been forced to listen to the “Appassionata”? An image popped into Henckel von Donnersmarck’s head of a guy sitting in a room full of surveillance equipment, wearing earphones. “He’s expecting to hear plots against the state, but he’s forced to listen to beautiful music that moves him deeply,” he says. “The whole story fell into place. I knew I had something. How did Stasi officers feel about knowing everything about the lives of others?”
Henckel von Donnersmarck stored the idea in a large filing cabinet. Even after four years of making short films, “it stayed with me,” he says. “I had a dramatic structure, knew the pivotal points. And I knew I had to research a lot.” The writer spent a year and a half researching East Germany and its ministry of state. Luckily, Henckel von Donnersmarck had visited East Berlin as a child with his mother, who had relatives there. He remembers the fear of crossing the Stasi-patrolled border, of being strip-searched and how afraid East Berliners were of being seen talking to Westerners. “We knew we were endangering them,” he says. “It was just 20 years ago. It showed me, as a child, that while adults were in control, circumstances could change and get them scared. I had an inkling of what went on. Everyone knows how it feels to have your privacy violated. But I wanted all the details to be 100% accurate.”
Anxious for his script be on the mark, Henckel von Donnersmarck sent drafts to East German writers, including Wolf Biermann, who he tracked him down at a book signing, where the writer snapped at him, “If I have anything to say about the Stasi, I’ll say it myself!” Henckel von Donnersmarck finished “Others” in a cell at his uncle’s 12th century Cistercian monastery, deep in the Vienna Woods.
Shot in 38 days, the film stars top East German theater actor Ulrich Muhe as the Stasi listener who is changed by what he learns about relationships, art, love, deception, corruption, power and betrayal. According to Henckel von Donnersmarck, Muhe was one of the first East Germans to claim his own 500-page Stasi file, and the actor learned that he had been under tight Stasi surveillance from the time he was in high school.
“They knew he was going to be a big star before he knew it,” Henckel von Donnersmarck says. “When he did military service, they positioned him on the Berlin Wall with orders to shoot. He collapsed on duty with stomach ulcers. They treated him, released him, and threatened him. He found out that his wife, a famous actress, was a Stasi informant. Playing the part was a journey of self-discovery for him.”
Initially, distributors told Henckel von Donnersmarck that the film was “too intense,” he recalls. But Disney’s Buena Vista International in Germany acquired the film. And when the Berlin International Film Festival did not invite it into competition but to a side section where the picture could easily get lost, Buena Vista moved the film straight into general release.
Henckel von Donnersmarck’s painstaking research paid off: When Biermann finally saw the film, he wrote in Die Welt, “Sometimes a work of art can have more documentary authenticity than documentary films, whose truth is put in doubt both by the perpetrators — of course — and more painfully by audiences who get bored very quickly.”
“Others” hit a nerve: The film built into a steady word-of-mouth hit. And Henckel von Donnersmarck became a reluctant figure of reconciliation, deluged with painful outpourings in letters full of “terrible Stasis,” he says, “a lot of despair and reawakened memories.”
Noting the success of the film in Germany, Sony Pictures Classics checked out a Festival de Cannes market screening (the festival passed after it didn’t play Berlin) and swiftly acquired it. “Michael Barker trusts his own taste, which is a rare thing,” the grateful Henckel von Donnersmarck says. With SPC on board, the movie sold easily to other markets.
Going forward, Henckel von Donnersmarck doesn’t want to make the classic missteps made by so many foreign directors in Hollywood. “I will not be tempted to go into a higher budget range and give up complete artistic freedom,” he promises, admitting that his control-freak tendencies lead him to fuss over every detail and shoot as many as 15 takes. In order to write again, he says, he needs to sift through that filing cabinet in “complete quiet.”
But Henckel von Donnersmarck certainly will have to suffer more pre-Oscar noise before he gets back to that monastery.