Writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck says that the idea for The Lives of Others (currently playing in Charlotte) began with a single image of a man sitting in a room, eavesdropping through headphones. But the journey of the first feature by the 33-year-old filmmaker, in which the notorious East German secret police known as the Stasi connives to destroy an unsubversive playwright, could be said to have begun in 1981. That's when the Cologne-born 8-year-old, his brother, Sebastian, and his parents -- his leftist mother and more conservative father -- moved to West Berlin after six years in New York.
"My mother was taking care of some things that had to do with our move," von Donnersmarck remembers, "and she said to her friend, who was one of her fellow socialists from student days, 'Why don't you show Florian and Sebastian the Wall.' I had no idea what she was talking about. The Wall? I was expecting some weird artwork or something. We saw this wall, and it was explained to me what it was. Then we came back, and my mother wanted to know how shocking we found that. And we just thought, 'What's so shocking? That's how it is.' And my parents were both, from their individual perspectives, pretty angry that we just took this as a matter of course."
The curly-haired, fleshy-faced director recalled this childhood moment at the American Film Institute last November after taking questions from the audience at a European Union Film Showcase screening of The Lives of Others. The movie had not yet been nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film (an honor it ended up winning), but the buzz out of Europe was strong. Fluent in English and Russian, von Donnersmarck speaks precisely, sometimes using British idioms he probably picked up while studying at Oxford. His accent, however, is more American than English, a legacy of those early years in the country where he became a film buff.
"Back then, it took about two years for an American film to be released in Germany," he says. "That was terrible for my brother and me, the idea that we had to wait two years for Raiders of the Lost Ark or the new Star Wars film." (Von Donnersmarck actually had a shot at making his first feature in Hollywood. Based on his short films, he was recruited by Universal Studios but returned to Germany when he realized he was being asked to make direct-to-video sequels to such hoary hits as Beethoven and Tremors.)
"In '81, globalization had not taken place in the way it had now," he says. "We were considered really exotic for having lived in the U.S. Back then, you couldn't get a pizza in Germany."
Things were even more parochial on the other side of the Berlin Wall, as von Donnersmarck learned on visits to friends and family in the East. He remembers the German Democratic Republic as having had a bleached-out look. "There wasn't any real red," he says. "Instead, there was a kind of orange-brown. There was far less clear blue. It was more greenish, sort of bleeding into gray."
When von Donnersmarck moved to the almost-defunct Soviet Union in 1991 to study Russian language and literature, he recognized the same color scheme. "Then in '93, the first Western ads started appearing there," he says. "I remember seeing this huge Marlboro ad, and I was just shocked by that red. It was just such a powerfully different color from what I was used to every day there."
When planning The Lives of Others, he decided to exaggerate this absence of vivid hues. "There's not a single red or blue object in the film," he says. "That's not something, hopefully, you notice consciously. But subconsciously it does feel like the GDR."
Because she had left East Germany, the filmmaker's mother received special attention when crossing the border for family visits in the 1980s. "She was always kept there for hours and strip searched and humiliated in all possible ways," he says. "So I as child had the experience of seeing adults being afraid. Not every child has, in a way, the privilege to see that."
Despite this experience, von Donnersmarck acknowledges that he caught only glimpses of life under Stasi supervision. Ulrich Mühe, who grew up in East Germany and plays the film's pivotal Stasi agent, had a more intense involvement with the GDR's version of Big Brother. But it was only after von Donnersmarck had cast Mühe that the director learned the actor's story.
"As we got to know each other better, he showed me his Stasi file," von Donnersmarck says. "The Stasi had him under tight surveillance right from the moment he left high school, because they knew he was going to be a big actor before he did. To make sure they had something to control him with, they actually stationed him at the Berlin Wall, which is unusual for someone just doing the normal two-year army service."
Mühe was issued a machine gun and told to kill anyone who tried to reach West Germany. Anticipating the guilt of shooting someone in cold blood, he became sick and ultimately collapsed. It turned out that he had developed severe ulcers, and half of his stomach was removed. He was dismissed from the second part of his military service.
Yet after Mühe became a successful actor, von Donnersmarck says, "they felt he was becoming too arrogant. So they summoned him back to the military board and said, 'If you do not stay completely along party lines, we will have you serve that second part of your term,' with the kind of undercurrent: And you will die."
Although von Donnersmarck didn't know about the Stasi's treatment of Mühe when he wrote his script, the case typifies the sort of psychological intimidation depicted in the film. "Some people have complained about this," he says. "They said, 'Why didn't you show the real torture that went on? And the murder?' But that was not the essence of it. The Stasi was not the Gestapo. The Gestapo would hire people on the basis of whether they could smash in some old lady's face without feeling any regret. That was the basis of recruitment, that kind of thuggishness. That was not the case at all with the Stasi."
The lack of physical duress in The Lives of Others is reflected in that key image of the Stasi agent, who's affected by the playwright's piano music he overhears through headphones. The idea was inspired by a remark Vladimir Lenin made to his friend, the author Maxim Gorki, about the effect one of Beethoven's best-known piano sonatas had on him. "'I don't want to listen to the Appassionata anymore,'" von Donnersmarck paraphrases Lenin, "'because if I do, it makes me want to stroke people's heads. But I have to smash in those heads without mercy in order to finish my revolution.'"
"I thought maybe I could construct a situation where Lenin would be forced to listen to the Appassionata just as he's getting ready to smash in somebody's head," he says. "And then Lenin turned into this Ulrich Mühe figure, just sitting there with headphones on, listening in on somebody, expecting to hear anti-socialist propaganda but actually hearing beautiful music."
This article first appeared in Washington City Paper.