Basketball-player tall, with a robust head of dark blond curls, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck cuts an imposing figure. But as much as the Teutonic helmer immediately impresses — both with his work and his presence — he also stands out for being rather humble, accessible and sweet.
“He’s so polite,” says thesp Sebastian Koch, who plays the East German writer who’s under surveillance by a Stasi agent in von Donnersmarck’s debut feature, “The Lives of Others.” Koch was the first actor to sign on to “Lives” and workshopped the script with the helmer for an intense four months before the shoot. “As a director, he’s politeness with a very strong will.”
“Lives,” which is Germany’s Oscar submission this year, first turned heads Stateside at the Telluride Film Festival in early September. It amassed multiple kudos at home in Germany (seven Lola Awards), and has charmed fest auds from Locarno to Toronto and Thessaloniki.
Von Donnersmarck’s ability to speak to many could be explained by the helmer’s multinational upbringing, starting with the U.S. as a small child, and later Belgium, Russia (during the collapse of the Soviet Union) and the U.K.
His time in Britain was spent at Oxford, where he studied philosophy, politics and economics. But his real interests lay in film, so he entered an essay writing contest to win an internship with Richard Attenborough. He got a spot and spent a year in London with the veteran helmer.
“He was very generous,” says von Donnersmarck. “He doesn’t guard any secrets or contacts.” Attenborough also insisted the fledgling filmmaker go to film school (he did, in Munich) and instilled in him a deep respect for actors.
“When the cameras are rolling, it’s only the actors,” confirms Koch. “Florian loves his actors.”
Another one of the helmer’s hallmarks is that he’s very meticulous about every aspect of production, from his film’s color palette to locations, props and sound. He was insistent that “Lives” be authentic in every way. He even recorded the pic’s sound on analog. “It gives a slightly more 1984 feel to it,” the helmer explains.
That meticulousness, of course, also went into his script. After a year and a half of research, he spent six weeks in a monastery in Austria to have the kind of calm surroundings he needed to write “Lives.”
His next project is likely to get the same treatment. “I have a filing cabinet full of ideas,” he says, “but to sit down and write a screenplay, I need complete peace.”
Provenance: Cologne, Germany
Inspired by: “Alfred Hitchcock, because he is always clear, yet unpredictable; deep, yet unpretentious. Robert Zemeckis, for the same reasons. Elia Kazan, Sydney Pollack, Peter Weir.”
Rep: Beth Swofford, CAA