Every novice filmmaker aspires to have their first feature praised by their peers.
If they're extremely fortunate, their earliest work will be embraced by critics and well-attended by audiences. Less often, their first feature will even be lauded with awards in their home country and abroad.
These expectations, of course, are unlikely at best. Of the thousands of feature films completed each year, only a small percentage find a life outside of the festival circuit. Of these, fewer still receive recognition beyond their brief theatrical run. Merely a handful are awarded the prizes of their day and rarely are the established awards granted to first-time filmmakers.
Despite these formidable odds, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has achieved each of these benchmarks by crafting one of the finest and most celebrated dramas of the year. The Lives of Others details the dubious actions of the East German secret police in the 1980s, although it is more than a tale of political intrigue and deceit. The substance of its success is the involving story of its three principal characters -- the writer, the actress and the agent. It is sometimes said that they don't make movies like this anymore. Perhaps that is why audiences around the world have championed this remarkable film.
I first met the director at the Telluride Film Festival last September. Calvin Souther transcribed the conversation that follows from a recording made mid-January in San Francisco.
Much has happened since the film premiered last year. You've been traveling from festival to festival with Das Leben der Anderen/The Lives of Others many months...
I used to spend a lot of time at film festivals. I spent six years making short films and festivals were essentially the only places where you could show them. Actually, I didn't see it as such an advantage that I could see films at festivals that I would never get to see otherwise because I didn't really want to see them at all. I'm the kind of person that generally sees the films that end up in wide-release later.
I remember GreenCine. You wrote something about The Lives of Others...
Indeed. We've mentioned it many times.
That's very helpful. A lot of people read these things.
Although we've repeatedly praised The Lives of Others, do you feel that there are the beginnings of a minor backlash against your film? It seems making a movie that deals sympathetically with a Stasi agent offends some folks...
There hasn't been that much of a backlash. When all of the main reviews came out in the serious German newspapers and the serious European newspapers, they were very positive. A few of my friends among the critics called me and said, "Poor you! You've got positive reviews in all of these newspapers. Now watch and there'll be a little second wave of people searching to make a profile for themselves by going against that." You know?
Saying, "They're all wrong! This is actually, morally, a highly dubious film." This happened a little bit, but only a very little bit. The thing is, of course, I read all my own reviews. But I've always read reviews. I follow critics very closely and I knew which ones I considered to be serious critics. A good critic almost has to know more about films than a filmmaker. All of the ones that I had always liked, whose opinions I respected and whose knowledge of films I've respected, these people all wrote articles that really helped me understand how my film would be understood. It's not as if everything I do as a filmmaker is done completely consciously.
Very often a critic will discover something that will make me understand something about a film, which is why I think it so interesting to read them. The few negative reviews were so self-contradictory. Look at Rotten Tomatoes, for example. I think, of the seventeen reviews or twenty reviews so far, there's only one negative review [the count, as of this writing, is five lukewarm reviews out of sixty-two] and that's just really unusual. The negative review says, "This is a film that turns Stasi people into heroes by saying that they were just following orders."
The film doesn't say that at all.
No. If my film is about anything, it's about a person who stops obeying orders. That's why he's admirable. So some people have this weird knee-jerk reaction where their ideas of "what is black" and "what is white" is somehow mixed up. They get angry and write that. But, generally, I really must say that I was treated quite well by the critics. Actually, the other day, I won the award for Best Foreign Language Film from the L.A. Film Critics Society, which I'm very excited about.
These numerous awards are a great achievement for a first feature. Admittedly, we've seen this notion of moral ambiguity expressed on a few occasions on the Daily. It is particularly odd because the people expressing their frustrations with The Lives of Others seemingly wouldn't have an issue with the same ambiguities in a film like The Conversation.
Because it wasn't successful!
You're right. I think that most of [Francis Ford] Coppola's films are really about moral questions. I even think The Godfather Part III is a very interesting film. I know most people hate it but it's a really interesting exploration of a moral journey. At the end of the day, everyone is trying to do good in their own weird way. And many people, of course, are mistaken, but they're trying. I think The Conversation was a prime example of that. It's a film that I like very much.