Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Though born in Cologne, West Germany, von Donnersmarck journeyed often to the East to visit relatives who lived in constant fear of being spied on and interrogated by Stasi officers. Even his parents failed to escape their reach - both were on a list of suspected traitors to the Communist cause, and his mother was taken away for several hours, strip-searched and humiliated when von Donnersmarck was 8-years old. His father, a Lufthansa Airlines employee, later moved the family to New York City, where von Donnersmarck spent a majority of his childhood and learned to speak excellent English. The rest of his youth was divided between Berlin, Frankfurt and Brussels.After learning to speak Russian in St. Petersburg when he was 18, Von Donnersmarck journeyed to England to attend Oxford University, spending five years studying philosophy, politics and economics with the intention of becoming a novelist. In his last year, Sir Richard Attenborough was at the school, holding a rotating arts professorship. An essay contest was held and von Donnersmarck won. Chosen by the acclaimed actor-director to be a production intern on his film "In Love and War" (1996), a biography about Ernest Hemingway's experiences as an ambulance driver during World War I, von Donnersmarck began attending Munich Film School where he was forced by his professor to develop 14 original film treatments in the first eight weeks. Von Donnersmarck hit a wall with treatment number 12, throwing him into a chasm of self-doubt over his life's course.As he sat listening to a Beethoven piano sonata, von Donnersmarck was reminded of a conversation Vladimir Lenin had with Maxim Gorky about Beethoven's "Appassionata." Lenin told the author that he could not listen to the opera because it made him want to pet people's heads and say nice things instead of smashing them to get his revolution. For von Donnersmarck, the idea for "The Lives of Others" was born. He spent an hour and a half developing the basic outline of a story about a Stasi officer listening to the lives of two artists considered traitors to the Communist cause, then shelved it for a few years while he continued with film school and made several shorts - including a four-minute exercise on cinematic style called "Dobermann." Instead of finishing school, however, von Donnersmarck left during his last year so he could begin researching the life and times of East Germany during the Stasi's long stranglehold.After a year and half, some of which was spent talking to both victims and the intelligence officers who tormented them, von Donnersmarck visited his uncle, an abbot at a 12 century Cistercian monastery, and spent a month writing the script. With a completed draft in hand, von Donnersmarck began to woo Germany's top acting talent, including Ulrich Muhe, an East German stage actor who was a prime target of the Stasi. Muhe put von Donnersmarck through the wringer, interviewing the inexperienced director twice to make sure that he was up for the job. The director passed easily and began shooting the film on a $2 million budget, with Muhe portraying an expert interrogator and surveillance officer monitoring the apartment of a playwright (Sebastian Koch) and his actress lover (Martina Gedeck), both of whom are under suspicion for subversive activities. Over time, the Stasi officer becomes immersed in their lives, enamored by their love for art, literature and each other, forcing him to confront - and ultimately reject - his stolid life of ideology.The film was released in Germany in March 2006, before making the international festival rounds, including the Cannes Film Festival, where Sony Pictures Classics landed the rights for North American distribution. Meanwhile, "The Lives of Others" began raking in the awards - the film earned numerous festival and critics awards, as well as a record seven German Film Awards, including for Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay. After winning three European Film Awards - including the top prize for Best European Film - "The Lives of Others" was recognized in the United States by the Hollywood Foreign Press with a 2006 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Following a win in the Best Foreign Film category at the Independent Spirit Awards, von Donnersmarck took home the Big One at the 79th Annual Academy Awards, winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film - much to the surprise of many filmgoers, who believe "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006) had it locked.