In just a few short weeks, a film shall be released in theaters across the nation: The Lives of Others.  Unfortunately for the American public, many people are so averted to foreign films, that this amazing work may fall between the cracks and not garner the monumental recognition that it has already received throughout the European community. 

A brilliant political thriller with a gripping human drama, The Lives of Others portrays Gerd Wiesler, a member of the Stasi (the “secret police” of East Germany) following the order of a jealous commanding officer, as he spies on prominent German playwright Georg Dreyman.  Over the course of the film, Wiesler begins to empathize with his subject and realizes the true motive behind his assignment, thus leading to the dissolution of the assignment and the erstwhile spy’s subsequent demotion.

The Lives of Others, from first-time director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, is an intriguing look into the lives of the German public during the Cold War, and the group of men and women, known as the Stasi  who were trained to spy on many of their fellow citizens and report their activities back to the government.  The outside world knew very little of the Stasi’s activities and their effect on the East German populace. 

With the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the Communist side of Germany struggled economically and socially, whereas the Western non-communist partition enjoyed a prosperous era of economic freedom that lasted thirty years, causing mass migrations to the West from 1949-1961.  This was the climate in Germany for a number of decades.  To the outside world, East Germany was veiled behind the wall and unbiased information flowed neither in nor out. 

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck began his directorial aspirations at Oxford University, where he was fortunate enough to study under Sir Richard Attenborough (Academy Award-winning director of Gandhi and Chaplin), who had offered his drama students an internship by participating in a specialized essay contest.  Upon winning a spot interning for Attenborough on the film In Love and War, von Donnersmarck began to realize that directing would be an ineluctable aggregate to his burgeoning aspirations as a scriptwriter. 

While watching Attenborough direct, von Donnersmarck began coming up with his own ideas on how certain shots should be composed.  Attenborough was humble and appreciative of von Donnersmarck’s recommendations, and suggested that the young protégé look into directing his own films.  With this newfound desire, and with a recommendation by one of cinema’s most celebrated filmmakers, von Donnersmarck took to studying at the Hochshule fur Fernsehen und Film in Munich. 


After making many award-winning short films and learning the German approach to filmmaking that admonishes: “Before you step behind the camera as a director, you have to build the camera,” von Donnersmarck left school in 2001 to pursue his full-length feature.  Locking himself in for six weeks with nothing but his Powerbook, von Donnersmarck began work on his screenplay. 

Taking inspiration from great German playwrights such as 18th century writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, von Donnersmarck soon found himself finished with the preliminary draft of The Lives of Others.  Spending the next two years honing the script, the nascent filmmaker realized that there was no one director that could really portray the emotion and vision that he himself knew had to shine through to the audience. 

Von Donnersmarck came to feel that, more than merely telling a story and evoking an emotion, cinema is about shaping a world and presenting it as a luxurious, beautiful, and sensual experience.  Films need to be enriching psychologically and sensually.  The Lives of Others is such a work—every aspect, from the script to the acting to the score, completely immerses the viewer in the story and the emotion of the German situation surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall.

While we Americans were enjoying Reaganomics, New Wave music, and the Brat Pack, Germany was in turmoil and facing a fear that very few of us could ever fully understand. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film is not only a heartfelt and beautifully crafted work, but it’s also an important period piece that exhibits a side of the Cold War that very few of us have ever been shown.

Mark Johnston, a native Californian, has travelled the world with various circuses, sideshows, and arena rock tours. As a musical monkey he has delighted fans the world over. Upon his return, he has since founded the Atomsmashers Publishing Company, written 2 books in the company's Warm Horchata series, created a weekly comic strip based around LA's more "colorful" characters, written reviews, articles, and rantings under various pseudonyms; this has since culminated in Johnston being named Captain Fabulous by the Superhero Association of America.