Director’s Portrait

When his film The Lives of Others was released Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck was aware that the topic of Communist dictatorship would give rise to discussion, and what is more – that is exactly what he wanted. No system of spies in the world, the director knows, is as comprehensive as that of the GDR was: more than a quarter of a million people were employed by the “State Security” (Stasi) to sound out their fellow citizens. This is a bitter truth that has now – in the 17th year after German reunification – been examined in a feature film for the first time. Donnersmarck did not make his material into a didactic film, but backed a technique of emotionalising personification. Peter Schneider, German author and member of the German Film Award jury, summed this up: “For a long time, there was a tendency to portray the GDR as a state where no one really suffered and the Stasi was regarded as something of a joke.” He went on to say that The Lives of Others was the first serious attempt at showing how the Stasi terrorized millions of GDR citizens. Even though the Stasi officer and the poet that he keeps under surveillance were not taken directly from official files, Donnersmarck insists that his film plot is very close to reality. “Everything could have happened that way at that time in GDR history.”

The director experienced the Stasi-debate “as something necessary for Germany, but also as something sad. I can imagine that the success of, shall we say, Run Lola Run was a reason for pure celebration for Tom Tykwer. For me, there is also a sense of despair over The Lives of Others and its victory march. Daily, I receive letters from people who tell me how they were mistreated and how they recognise themselves in the film. And the poet Guenter Ullmann sent me one of his volumes of poetry, with a grateful dedication. He was the one who – after endless, brutal Stasi interrogations – had all his teeth pulled, because he was convinced that bugs had been implanted in them (in fact, his closest friend was an IM – an unofficial Stasi employee – something he simply could not fathom). And the next day, the actor Henry Huebchen tells an audience of millions that people in artists’ circles laughed at the Stasi rather than anything else. That is the kind of roller-coaster ride I have experienced over the last 4 months. I will be glad to leave the subject behind me. I have just turned down a big American project because it would have brought me back into contact with the same set of themes.”

From Director’s Portrait

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