Spies have long been a movie staple. Usually, they’re an excuse for action in exotic locations, as in the James Bond pics, or for a mixture of romance and suspense, like Hitchcock’s “Notorious.”
But “The Lives of Others,” Germany’s official entry into the foreign-language film race, takes a different angle on spying. The pic, which will be distributed in the U.S. by Sony Classics, is an intimate look into the world of an East German secret policeman under the old Communist regime.
First-time feature helmer-writer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film, set in 1984 East Berlin, follows Stasi agent Gerd Wiesler, whose task it is to spy on writer Georg Dreyman and his g.f., actress Christa-Marie Sieland. As Wiesler listens to the lives of the artists, he realizes the emptiness in his own life, and eventually tries to shield the couple from his higher-ups. Wiesler’s personal journey from unquestioning support for the government to self-doubt and self-awareness also parallels the beginning of the end of East Germany’s Communist regime.
Pic has not only racked up healthy box office at home ($13 million) but has also won a Trabant-load of awards and is being hailed for its script.
Von Donnersmarck’s screenplay is carefully researched. “I first got the idea for the story in 1997,” says the multihyphenate, who was in film school in Munich when one of his professors gave the class an assignment: Write 14 film treatments for 14 different pics in eight weeks. This one stuck.
“Most writers will know this — that most ideas work on your subconscious. And to make it completely real, I knew I had to do a lot of research. I spent a year and a half researching. While you do research, it’s a marvelous way of meditating over the screenplay.”
Speaking of meditation, he penned the first draft in the Cistercian monastery in the Vienna woods.
“My uncle is a monk there,” he says. “I needed to get this screenplay out of my head, and the Cistercians are all about prayer and work, so I called my uncle and I asked if I could work there. I worked on the first draft for six weeks. I got more done in six weeks than I could have in six months anywhere else.”
Von Donnersmarck, who was born in West Germany but grew up in New York, West Berlin, Frankfurt and Brussels, says his biggest challenge was being fair to characters who do despicable things. “(I had to) find it in my heart to respect every character — and not to judge the characters — even when they were doing terrible things,” says von Donnersmarck.
It’s a dilemma many Germans have faced in their own lives. Upwards of 1 million East Germans either spied for the Stasi or were involved in some form of espionage against their own family, friends and neighbors. Many were exposed when the Stasi files were opened after reunification.
“Carl Jung has a theory, that everything — vice and virtue — is contained within everybody,” says von Donnersmarck. “What we choose to display is us. As screenwriters, we have to acknowledge that and write from within.”
Another challenge was the ending. “The end of a film is as important to me as the best moments in the rest of the film,” says von Donnersmarck. “I was striving to see how I could get (Wiesler and Dreyman) to meet either physically or spiritually. I tried out a lot of things but nothing worked.”
The film ends in 1991, with Wiesler buying a book by Dreyman. The former Stasi captain is surprised to see it’s dedicated to him.
“So — this is how I like to write, I like to write in a monastery-type setting — I went into a room and took a calligraphy pen and channeled words through the pen. Then I tried to see what they meant. I wrote the word Widmung (equivalent to “a dedication” in English), and within a few minutes I had it, and that’s how I knew I’d end the story. It does feel as a writer that you are a medium; you are not so much creating as receiving.
Early criticism of the film centered on von Donnersmarck’s relative youth (he’s 33) and privileged background. “The three crimes of a screenplay are: Is it boring? Pretentious? Confusing? So I asked myself, ‘Is there something that can be misconstrued in the screenplay?’ I really wanted to make sure that it didn’t come across as arrogant.
“I put as much of my soul into the film as I would a novel. I believe in the written word. As screenwriters, we see the written word taken further,” he says.