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In East Berlin, five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) of the secret Stasi police is given the mission to spy on a celebrated writer and actress couple (Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck) for the German Democratic Republic. But Wiesler's loyalty begins to erode as his immersion in "the lives of others," in love, literature and freethinking, makes him acutely aware of the shortfalls of his own existence. Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Winner of 7 German Film Awards including Best Director and Outstanding Feature Film. Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film.
 

 The 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.