Filming the Effects of Art on an Inhuman Regime

Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) i i

Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) is an East German secret police agent assigned to spy on a famous playwright in 1984 — before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Hagen Keller/Sony Pictures Classic hide caption

itoggle caption Hagen Keller/Sony Pictures Classic
Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe)

Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) is an East German secret police agent assigned to spy on a famous playwright in 1984 — before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Hagen Keller/Sony Pictures Classic

This year's European Film Award for best movie was won by an unknown Austrian, who beat out established directors like Pedro Almodovar and Ken Loach.

The Lives of Others is set in East Berlin in the years before the fall of the wall, when the secret police — the Stasi — kept files on nearly 6 million East German citizens.

In the film, a Stasi agent has a change of heart about his country's repressive regime — in part because of a beautiful piece of music.

Writer and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck says that he began thinking about such a character in 1997, and five years later two things finally compelled him to get to work: he figured that if it had been on his mind for so long, the story was worth telling, and he also realized that its essential questions are still with us.

"The issues of privacy, or freedom," is what his film is about, von Donnersmarck says. "And in a way the East German secret police is just an institutionalized violation of privacy."

The film, Germany's entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars, has already won seven Lolas, Germany's version of the Oscars.

For writer/director Florian von Donnersmarck, the story is also about a man who encounters great art for the first time in his life, and how it changes him.

"I personally have been changed by great works of art," von Donnersmarck says, "and I think if someone listens to a beautiful piece of music, and he's prepared in the right way, then I think that can make him a better person.

"That is why Lenin was so scared of the "Appassionata." He basically shut off the right side of his brain, and his heart, and went for it. This is the story of a man who fails in that goal."

Directing 'The Lives of Others'

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Hagen Keller, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

German writer and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's movie, The Lives of Others, has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Donnersmarck writes that his film is "a human drama about the ability of human beings to do the right thing, no matter how far they have gone down the wrong path."