Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

This first appeared in the Sunday Independent on April 15, 2007.

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is admittedly a bit of a mouthful but it could be a name worth remembering. The 33 year German caused a sensation at this year’s Oscars by walking off with the award for best foreign film for his riveting story of political and personal intrigue in pre-perestroika Berlin, The Lives of Others. What made the win all the more noteworthy was that it was his first feature film and put together on a shoestring budget. Henckel Von Donnersmarck (oh dear let’s just go with ‘Florian’, shall we?) nagged greats such as composer Gabriel Yared into working for a fraction of their usual fee and still had to put up some of the money to finance the project himself. Even after the movie was made every virtually major distributor passed on it, with most dismissing the final cut as ‘too serious.’ So many people told him that the film was not going to make it that he admitted that he even had doubts. ‘Maybe I have to start looking at the possibility that I may be delusional’’ he thought to himself.

So I would imagine that now that the movie has gone on to conquer the world, and cause film critics to go into spasms of pleasure Florian, must be feeling pretty pleased with himself. Sitting in one of the mirrored green rooms of the National Film theatre in London he has folded his gigantic 6 foot 7 frame into a swivel chair and smiles. ‘I’m one of those overnight successes that was ten years in the making’’ he tells me. ‘It was a fight to get this made. People like Guillermo (del Toro, director of Pan’s Labyrinth) can draw this universe of monsters, so the financiers can visualise what it’s about. But if you’re talking about psychological drama nobody really knows what the film is going to be like. They think ‘this guy may be taking our millions and sinking them.’ If I was making armchairs or something and just made a so-so armchair it can still be sold somewhere at a discount. They can claw back (italics) some (close italics) money on it. But with a bad film, nobody wants to see it. You can’t put it on sale. And you can lose all of your money.’

He also thinks that the would-be backers made the mistake of discounting the clout of critics. ‘There are so many disposable comedies that might get savaged by the critics and it doesn’t seem to make too much of a difference to how they do at the box office so its tempting to think ‘critics don’t matter. They won’t pay your bills.’ But the reaction to this was so overwhelming that it did make a difference. They will pay my bills.’
To English speakers his name might seem daunting but to Germans Florian’s moniker betrays his blue blood. If the Austro-Hungarian Empire had survived, he somewhat ruefully tells me, he would be a Count today. His parents hailed from the East Germany – his father came from the part of Germany ceded to Poland after the Second World War – but from 1981 brought him up in West Berlin. He caught ‘glimpses’ of life behind the iron curtain, he tells me. ‘Any child will have a memory of adults in fear. That’s something that will stay with you. Normally adults go out of their way to show children that they’re in control of the situation so when you sense they’re not, it’s very frightening for you as a child.’

After graduating from school he went to Leningrad to study Russian and then to Oxford where he read Politics Economics and Philosophy. Sir Richard Attenborough, Professor of Drama in Oxford at the time advised him to become a director so he enrolled at the Academy of Television and film in Munich and went on to direct a number of short films. Even at that point Florian sought out the most talented people in German film hoping they would give him his break. ‘They all told me to come back when I was making a proper film’, he remembers.

You get the impression talking to him that he is ferociously ambitious and driven. His dream jobs as a schoolboy were ‘German Chancellor or bestselling author’ and when I compliment him on all he has achieved at such a young age he shoots back: ‘Coppola was only a year older than me when he made the Godfather.’ Having once lived in the same neighbourhood as him I had intended on practicing my somewhat rusty Berlinerisch on him but his English is so expressive and fluent that it becomes clear that any digression into another language would be ridiculous. Some interviewees sit back and trot out the same pat answers they’ve given during their entire promotional tour but Florian’s brain is always working overtime. He pauses thoughtfully between answers and questions the questions. He wants a conversation, not an interview.

I can quite easily imagine him getting into an argument with Wolfgang Becker, the director and writer of the wonderful Goodbye Lenin. The Lives of Others has been characterised as a counterbalance to Becker’s rosier vision of life behind the iron curtain and Florian tells me that the two had words when they met a few years ago in Los Angeles at a cultural centre and former villa of exiled German-Jewish writer, Lion Feuchtwanger. ‘I really respect him (Becker). But we immediately got into a fight. It was over politics. I was flattered, to be honest, that he got so annoyed at me. I was only a short film director and he was already established as a feature film director.’

Their argument had echoes in a wider political and social debate in Germany. There is in Europe’s largest country a strange nostalgia for the memory of life under Stalin and the Stasi. People reminisce fondly about full employment and certain supermarkets in Berlin now even sell the awful pickled meat and retro DDR cola of the period. The Germans even have a new word for this Nostalgia for the old East: Ostalgie.

Understandably it’s something that most of the country’s leading politicians rail against and Florian sees this as part of the reason that they rallied behind The Lives of Others. ‘the major cultural and political figures in Germany, such as Angela Merkel – who was something of a freedom fighter herself- have hugely endorsed my film and said how important it has been to the national discussion.’

Given his success with the Lives of Others it’s likely now Hollywood beckons and Florian seems comfortable with that idea. ‘People say that Hollywood is the destruction of it all but it’s not true. There are so many great films coming out of the American system. If you have someone who has an idea and fights for that idea he will be able to use the Hollywood system to make that film. Look at people as fiercely independent as Stanley Kubrick, Orsen Welles and Ang Lee. The whole idea of a studio taking control of a movie – it doesn’t really happen. The great directors controlled their own movies.’

It’s clear that Florian has that kind of greatness in his sights, but as we get ready to leave his freshman status suddenly shines though as he frets that he hasn’t plugged his film quite enough. I’m quickly issued with a free Lives of Others t-shirt and a plea to vote for the film on imdb.com. ‘We’re only on position 91; I want to be number 1.’ It’s a charming little chink in his self assurance and somehow you have little doubt he soon will be mentioned in the same breath as his heroes. Florian Henckel Von Donnersmack is a name we will be twisting out tongues around for years to come.

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~ by Donal Lynch on January 21, 2008.

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