The star of this year's Portland International Film Fest was undeniably first-time German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others. Set in East Germany during the early 1980s, the brilliant film tells the story of Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), who is charged with monitoring the activities of a prominent playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). Wiesler listens in while Dreyman parties with his friends, talks about subversive politics, and fucks his wife—and slowly, Wiesler's officious façade crumbles as he becomes inextricably involved in Dreyman's life, eventually even protecting him from Stasi persecution.
According to von Donnersmarck, Others is the first film to seriously address what life was like in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall—a time when citizens were under constant surveillance, both from the Stasi and from the estimated 300,000 citizens who reported on suspicious activities of their friends, families, and neighbors—and it provoked a massive emotional response from German audiences.
I had lunch with von Donnersmarck, and in between bites of pancake, he talked about privacy, Harry Potter, and why Portland is such a cultured town.
MERCURY: Did you have fun at PIFF's screening of the film?
von Donnersmarck: I did. You know, I can gauge the level of culture of an audience from their reaction to certain little, nuanced things. For example, in the beginning of the film, there's one incident that says a lot about the way organizations like the Stasi work. An interrogator says [to a prisoner], "If you think that we just incarcerate people on a whim—if you think our system is capable of such a thing—that alone would justify your arrest." I always thought that was a really good line, but many audiences don't audibly respond to it. [At the PIFF screening] I could hear lots of people laughing at the absurdity of that situation, and so I thought, "Okay, I feel safe with this audience."
That's interesting, because I was a little embarrassed for Portland during the Q&A after the screening—like when someone compared life in East Germany to life in the US under the Patriot Act. You said something like, "The difference is that if I call you tomorrow, you won't be in jail for having asked that question."
Well, I think that whenever we watch any kind of film we should be searching for the relevance to our lives. The more you look for that, the better it is, and the more involved you become in the work of art. If you start seeing art merely as something of historical interest, it becomes boring.
So how is your film relevant to people outside of Germany?
Invasion of privacy happens everywhere. Something like wiretapping is always going to be a problem, especially with the advance of technology. A while ago I thought of this thing in Harry Potter—you know how he has that invisibility cloak? If someone gave me an invisibility cloak, would I throw it away in horror and say, "No, I'm not going to use this"? No, I wouldn't. I'd have a lot of fun with it. Well, the Stasi had that invisibility cloak, George W. Bush has that invisibility cloak, everyone that has power plus technology has that invisibility cloak. And politicians feel justified, morally, in using [it]. The kind of courage that is demanded of the main character in the film—[that's] something we don't just have to display in political situations, but on a day-to-day basis, whether it's in our workplace or in our very own families.