The Life of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

love3Henckel von Donnersmarck's remark about it being easier to make a cold film than a warm one really struck me. Pulling off true emotions without seeming annoyingly sentimental is a serious accomplishment.




A cynical American film student, obsessed with Catherine Breillat, meets a friendly German filmmaker, obsessed with Frank Capra. NBC is working on the sitcom now. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, director of The Lives of Others, stands well over six feet tall, admiring Star Wars action figures in the top shelf of the cinematic menagerie that lines the entrance walls of the Tivoli Theatre. "Do you remember when these things came out?" he asks, his head three shelves above mine. I reluctantly admit that I haven't seen a single Star Wars film, an attribute I've allowed to define me as the film student. This would be a good start to the sitcom, I believe. Two weeks before surprising Oscar viewers in beating Pan's Labyrinth for Best Foreign Language Film, the modest first-time filmmaker, who dropped out of film school, sat down to talk about his film.

"You've seen the film, right?" he asks, noting the fact that his previous interviewer hadn't made the discussion a tadflorian difficult. As I had seen it, Henckel von Donnersmarck appeared more at ease when talking about The Lives of Others and cinema in general. After rejecting the idea of a national union between filmmakers, or artists, he stated what such theater chains as Landmark or even the Academy Awards broadcasts, that "cinema really transcends language and political boundaries." Most people certainly recognize this, but what Henckel von Donnersmarck wanted to emphasize was the power of individual vision. "I mean, what do Truffaut, Godard, and Chabrol really have in common?" he asks, rhetorically, as their native language and time period appears to be the only unifying factor between them. Having few similarities to the renowned German filmmakers after World War II, visionaries such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Volker Schlöndorff, or Wim Wenders, Henckel von Donnersmarck's true influences came from the realms of American and world cinema. Citing Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, the works of Billy Wilder, Akira Kurosawa, and Kryzstof Kieslowski, he further emphasized the world of film as being a universal one, which would seem apropos for a filmmaker who would go on to win the prestigious Academy Award.

Henckel von Donnersmarck found duality in the historical setting of The Lives of Others. I pondered what the actual purpose of depicting historical events in cinema truly meant, and for him, it alleviates the seeming necessity to explain your world to your audience, the historical film being the direct counter of the sci-fi picture. Alternatively, depicting a period of history like the repression of the individual under East German regime, also serves as a small lesson for those unfamiliar with the circumstances. It would seem fitting that his film be set in a period where individualism was not only frowned upon, but subject to imprisonment, when the idea of individualism is what prompted him to leave film school and work on his first feature. "When you're writing, do you really think, ‘How would someone from a group of people I associate with write this?'" he asks, again rhetorically.

"Sometimes I think of myself as a therapist, perhaps an entertainment therapist," Henckel von Donnersmarck comments after the question of whether or not it's cliché to expose humanity in tragic periods of history. The Lives of Others certainly is no Schindler's List, but they both take place during dreadful eras of recent German history and both show the power of one man resisting orders. The discussion then turns to what would be a recurring theme of our meeting, dark versus light. "As a writer, or an actor, it's very easy to depict the world as a cold, miserable place," he states. Though he mentioned that no film or piece of literature in particular inspired the making of The Lives of Others, the relations between Kieslowski and Capra certainly arise when watching his film. The world presented is, on the surface, a cold, miserable place, but as an "entertainment therapist" director, his focus isn't merely on the negative aspects of the era but on the positive human strength of one man (Ulrich Mühe).

On the subject of the Academy Awards, Henckel von Donnersmarck recognized these as being the ultimate honor one could bestow upon any artist. Though we quarreled about the idea of Ron Howard versus Alfred Hitchcock and Hilary Swank versus Barbara Stanwyck in terms of trophies, he still regards the Academy Awards as being more right than wrong on a yearly basis. Though The Lives of Others won seven awards at the German equivalent of the Oscars (including Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay), he seemed to be more excited for recognition in the United States. As one could see from his joyous acceptance, this was no small feat, as he provided one of the liveliest moments of the entire ceremony.

Henckel von Donnersmarck's remark about it being easier to make a cold film than a warm one really struck me. Pulling off true emotions without seeming annoyingly sentimental is a serious accomplishment. Pedro Almodóvar, a director he greatly admires, is one of the few contemporary filmmakers coming to mind who can pull off such an endeavor, we agreed. Despite our sometimes differing tastes (for example, he came to the defense of Paul Haggis and Crash when the subject arose), it's hard not to be charmed by a director in love with cinema and beginning a promising career for himself. Keep a lookout for that sitcom this fall. | Joe Bowman

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