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Before the wall's fall, long after the Fall of Man

The Oscar-nominated German film `The Lives of Others' sees human tragedy in Stasi spying.

February 04, 2007|Lisa Rosen | Special to The Times

A remark Lenin made to his writer friend Maxim Gorky set off Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's imagination. A month's stay in a monastery captured it. The result is Henckel von Donnersmarck's writing and directing debut, "The Lives of Others," now in the running for an Oscar as best foreign film.

Set in East Berlin in 1984, five long years before the fall of the Berlin wall, the movie explores the chilling reality of life under surveillance from 100,000 trained spies and civilian informants of the all-pervasive Stasi, or East German secret police. But more metaphorically, it examines the ways in which lives intersect and irrevocably alter one another. When Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), a consummate Stasi agent, is assigned to spy on a successful playwright and his actress companion (Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck), he soon becomes drawn to their world, then interferes with it, and nothing is ever the same again.

German films tend to make a good showing at the Oscars. "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days" was nominated last year, and "Downfall" made it to the final five the year before that. In 2003, the German film "Nowhere in Africa" took home the gold. "Lives" has received widespread critical praise, won a record seven German Film Awards (including best film, director and screenplay), as well as three European Film Awards. The film opens in Los Angeles on Friday.

In town from his home in Berlin for the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. awards (best foreign film winner) and the Golden Globes (best foreign language film nominee), Henckel von Donnersmarck, 33, folded his 6-foot-9 frame into a chair at a Beverly Hills hotel to discuss how his first feature came into being.

Nearly a decade ago, he read about a conversation between Lenin and Gorky. "Lenin said he didn't want to listen to his favorite piece of music anymore, Beethoven's 'Appassionata,' because, he said, 'If I listen to that music, it makes me want to stroke people's heads and tell them nice things, but I have to smash in those heads without mercy to finish my revolution,' " Henckel von Donnersmarck recalled. "That's such a crazy example of someone at war with his own humanity. I thought, 'What if I could find a situation where I could force Lenin to listen to the "Appassionata" just when he was getting ready to smash in somebody's head?' "

An image came to him of a man with headphones on. "He thinks he's going to listen to his enemy saying terrible things and actually ends up listening to beautiful music," said the filmmaker. "Within a couple of hours, I had the basic plot of the story."

Henckel von Donnersmarck let the story lie for four years while he attended film school, shooting several award-winning shorts. When the time came to make yet another short to graduate, he left school instead, to make a feature about the man with the headphones.

Research pays off

THE more he learned about the Stasi, the more fascinated he became. After a year and a half, he knew he had done enough research. He wrote to his uncle, the abbot of a 12th century Cistercian monastery in the Austrian woods, and offered to help with the daily tasks in return for a room. Uncle Ulrich/Abbot Gregory agreed, so at age 29, Henckel von Donnersmarck went to live in a monk's cell for four weeks to write his first draft.

His script was strong enough to attract the cream of the German acting profession -- Gedeck ("Mostly Martha"), Koch ("Black Book") and Muhe.

"It's as if here I had gone to Robert Redford and Meryl Streep," said Henckel von Donnersmarck. "Sebastian is the biggest TV star in the West, and Ulrich is the biggest stage star in the East." Muhe was born and raised in East Germany, so he knew the film's theater-world milieu intimately. "He would have known those people and gone to those parties featured in the film," the filmmaker said. An activist against East Germany's communist regime, Muhe had also been under observation by the Stasi.

The actor was therefore wary of the writer's ability to direct such tricky material. "Ulrich interviewed me twice to see if I'd be up for the job," said Henckel von Donnersmarck. In the first interview, Muhe handed over part of his Stasi file and asked the director to translate the abbreviations. The research paid off; Henckel von Donnersmarck passed easily.

"On the second interview, Ulrich said, 'Look, basically it's a role where this guy is just sitting in the attic all day and he's just moved all the time by everything he hears. How do I act that?' " Henckel von Donnersmarck said. "And I said, 'Maybe you don't act it at all.' And then he said, 'OK, I'll do it.' " Muhe won the European and German film awards for best actor by "just sitting in the attic," reluctantly forced to open up to new thoughts and experiences by a beautiful couple ignorant of his existence. And for that couple's abundant charms, theirs is a love story between adults, in all their flawed and weary glory.

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