Lives of Others
Be careful, you too can become your own villain!
In Carl Jung’s theory of character, every vice and every virtue,
every interest and every mood, can be found in every single one of us.
Everybody is capable of anything. What attributes we choose to display
is what we are about. But everything is potentially there, in that room
that we call our soul, and we’d better be aware of it or it will
catch up with us at some later point, like the homosexual inclination
that catches up with the homophobe or the desire to worship that catches
up with the atheist.
Filmmakers are particularly aware of this. If in my screenplay I had
started writing the opening scene (the interrogation scene) asking myself,
“How would an evil Communist investigator grill his victim?,”
you can be sure that scene would have been unconvincing, possibly even
boring. But by asking instead, “Where is that Communist ideologue
in me? Where is that part of my soul that could have
turned me into a merciless, efficient apparatchik?,” the scene
becomes as beguiling as listening in on a confession.
I can tell you it takes more courage than talent to get that right.
But it can be a source of fun as well because it allows you to suspend
judgment for a while. (An exhilarating experience! Try it!) It allows
you to reconsider your own values from a totally different place and
then draw new conclusions (or draw the old ones again, if you like).
From every one of your characters in the screenplay you will get to
know new parts of yourself, and every single one of them will influence
you the way any person with whom you become acquainted influences you.
To begin I needed to write the first draft of the screenplay in a place
with few or no distractions. So I contacted my father’s brother,
who happens to be the Abbot of a Cistercian monastery in the Vienna
Woods, and asked him if he would be willing to put me up for six weeks.
The rule of St. Benedict obliges those who follow in his tradition
to provide hospitality of any kind when it is sought. So, before long,
I found myself in a 12th century monk’s cell, subject to the rule
of silence, living like a monk, eating like a monk—with the one
difference being that when they prayed, I wrote. To the eerily soothing
sounds of Gregorian chants, I discovered the lecherous corrupt politician
in myself, turned myself into a prostitute working exclusively for the
Secret Police, turned into an actress whose spirit has been broken by
the injustices of dictatorship—and of course, into my protagonist,
the ideologue who gradually realizes that he can’t disown his
humanity. All these people were there within me, waiting in some dark
place to be discovered.
At the end of the six weeks, I had a pretty scary self-portrait on 130
pages. But the most interesting discovery was that, if you really write
that way, you will not find it in you completely to condemn your villains.
In the process of writing, you as a writer discover that you are your
own villain. You will not condemn the character you have created completely
because you would be condemning yourself.
As with my characters, approaching people without prejudgment has proven
to be valuable in everyday life. However, in making a film, this wisdom
is worth very little without great actors. The actors turn the words
on the page into flesh and blood. They have to find that part of their
soul they need for the role, and then let it take over their entire
organism. They have no brush and no chisel to help them. They only have
themselves and faith that the character is somewhere within them. And
it is. Because everything is. If the mechanism of writing and
directing is in synch with the actor’s process, the result is
like having a wiretap in a confession booth—much is revealed and
our eyes are riveted to the screen. This above all is what I have strived
to achieve with The Lives of Others.