- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 22, 2007

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck didn’t set out to goad Germany to confront its past, but that’s just what the 33-year-old writer-director’s masterly debut, “The Lives of Others” (“Das Leben der Anderen”), has done.

The German filmmaker, in town recently to promote his Oscar-nominated film that opens here today, was inspired by reading what Vladimir Lenin said about Beethoven’s “Appassionata” sonata.

“What astonishing, superhuman music!” the dictator told writer Maxim Gorky. “I want to say sweet, silly things, and pat the little heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty.” So Lenin had to stop listening because “those little heads must be beaten, beaten mercilessly.”

That small anecdote set off a large creative spark for Mr. von Donnersmarck.

“I thought, maybe I could find a way of forcing Lenin to listen to the ‘Appassionata,’ ” he says. “It didn’t come about from wanting to make a film about the GDR [German Democratic Republic], but from wanting to tell a story.”

The Communist confronted with beauty in “The Lives of Others” is Stasi agent Gerd Wiesler. It’s 1984, and he’s a true believer in the German Democratic Republic, assigned to spy on playwright Georg Dreyman. Dreyman seems to support the regime, but Wiesler is suspicious. He is assigned to eavesdrop at the instigation of Minister Hempf. With designs on Dreyman’s actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland, the boorish apparatchik has his own reasons for snooping on the playwright.

As Wiesler listens to the couple grapple with their art, their love and the state in their East Berlin apartment, he slowly begins to regain his humanity. The result is the best film of 2006.

Lenin also said, “Cinema is the most important of all the arts for us.” Mr. von Donnersmarck seems to agree.

“If you have a troubling thing in your past, films are a really, really good way to work through it,” he insists. “In some ways, we Germans have been less systematic about that so far than Americans have been about the Vietnam War.” He points to a whole genre of films, including “The Deer Hunter,” “Platoon,” and “Full Metal Jacket.”

Of course, Germans have spent a lot of time the last few decades thinking about their history — but the focus has been on World War II, not its aftermath. Is “The Lives of Others” the first film to delve into the country’s Cold War?

“It was the first one that didn’t bore people,” Mr. von Donnersmarck laughs.

Germans were more than ready to confront that past, if the reception to this film is any indication. “The Lives of Others” won seven Lola Awards (the German Oscars), including best film, best director, best screenplay, best actor and best supporting actor. It had a record 11 nominations.

“Before the film came out, we screened it to several groups of the leading intellectuals and writers of Eastern Germany,” says the filmmaker. “They all came out with incredibly strong endorsements of the film, saying how they rediscovered their own lives through the film.” That, he says, “gave people the courage to go and see it.”

When they do, the response is often overwhelming. Mr. von Donnersmarck receives dozens of letters a week — sometimes a day — from strangers. “They will tell me their own personal stories and very often say this is the first time they’ve told them,” reports the filmmaker. “Because people haven’t somehow been thinking about this so much. They haven’t been admitting to themselves how much they suffered over those years.”

Making a film that so moves a nation should be immensely gratifying for a first-time director, but Mr. von Donnersmarck says it’s not an unalloyed pleasure.

“It’s also put me in touch with a lot of very dark things,” he reveals. “With these letters, very often I dread opening them. It’s almost that I’ve become a therapist for everybody damaged by the Cold War. That’s very taxing.”

Mr. von Donnersmarck was only a teenager when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, but he conducted meticulous research. Real East German secret police relics are used as props in the film.

While his story is pure fiction, the details are not. Friends informed on friends, wives informed on husbands. “Which is why most people in Germany have not claimed their Stasi files,” he says. The truth can be hard to bear.

So can Mr. von Donnersmarck’s suggestion of how history might have played out. His film is the story of a man who never once used the excuse, “I was just following orders.”

“There have been many people who came up to me and suddenly started justifying themselves for things that they did,” he reports. “I said, ‘Look, I’m not a priest. I can’t give you absolution.’ People do see the film as proof that you can behave differently.”

Mr. von Donnersmarck’s parents are from East Germany, but the director himself grew up something of a nomad. He was born in Cologne, but the family moved to New York when he was just 2 years old. Six years later, they moved to West Berlin, then Frankfurt and Brussels. He studied Russian in Leningrad and politics, economics and philosophy at Oxford. He later worked with Sir Richard Attenborough on “In Love and War.”

It might seem a surprising background for someone who has tackled a topic close to the German heart, but the towering Mr. von Donnersmarck (he’s 6 feet 9 inches) says that a nomad actually identifies more with his home — because others are so quick to identify one with a label.

The filmmaker hasn’t yet decided on his next project — the travel for “The Lives of Others” precludes the peace he needs to write. But he has a singular enthusiasm for the medium. (I’ve never met another director who so enjoyed talking about other people’s films.) Rising at 3 a.m. each day because of jet lag, he’s been catching up on recent movies through hotel rentals. One gets the feeling it’s part love, part learning.

“The Lives of Others” is nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film. “Of course,” Mr. von Donnersmarck responds when asked if he’s attending Sunday night’s Oscar ceremony at the Kodak Theatre.

“Do you think anybody could be so jaded? I’m not Marlon Brando.”

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