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Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck was born in 1973. His late father was an executive with Lufthansa German Airlines, and his mother a literary scout for Oldenbourg Academic Publishers. Florian grew up in the US, Germany and Belgium. He lists as the strongest cultural influences of his childhood the Humanistic High Schools he attended in Berlin and Frankfurt, the idea of European integration he was exposed to in Brussels and the nights spent at the New York City Opera, Schauspiel Frankfurt, La Monnaie and other theatres. Upon finishing high school, Florian studied Russian Language and Literature in Saint Petersburg, graduating as a Soviet-certified Teacher of Russian as a Foreign Language. He went on to read Politics and Philosophy at Oxford.
In his final year at Oxford, Florian won an essay competition to become apprentice to director Richard Attenborough on the Hemingway film “In Love and War.” The experience of the apprenticeship convinced him to use his passion for literature, music and spectacle in the medium of cinema. So, from 1997 to 2001, Florian obtained a third degree, this time in filmmaking, from the University for Television and Film, Munich. During that time he won numerous festival awards for his short films, among them the Max Ophüls Prize.
While at film school, Florian wrote an outline, “Sonata for a Good Man”, which told of the relationship between a Stasi agent and the dramatist with whose surveillance he is charged. In this story, looking back at “the century of ideologies”, Florian explored the old aesthetic question of how to bridge the chasm between thinking and feeling. Florian felt this tale would allow him to tackle a subject matter that was personal and important to him, while trying to create on film the dramatic and psychological complexity he had often encountered in novels.
In 2002 Florian moved to East Berlin to research the historical aspects of this plot, and wrote a screenplay which he ended up calling “The Lives of Others”. He teamed up with producer duo Wiedemann & Berg, who were his friends from film school. With support from public broadcaster BR and international sales agent Jan Mojto, it became possible to shoot “The Lives of Others” in November and December of 2004. The shoot lasted 37 days. The finished film was released by Buena Vista in March of 2006. “The Lives of Others” went on to generate US$ 77 million at the worldwide box office, and to win the German and European Film Awards, the Los Angeles and the New York Critics’ Awards, the French Syndicate of Film Critics' Foreign Film Award, Italy’s David di Donatello, and in February 2007 the Academy Award® for Best Foreign Language Film. The string of wins continued until February 2008 when “The Lives of Others” received England’s BAFTA and France’s César.
After almost two years of presenting the film and writing and lecturing on cinema and aesthetics, Florian moved to Los Angeles to experience the center of the film world. In December of 2009, he began work on “The Tourist”, a light-hearted thriller set in Paris and Venice. In “The Tourist” Florian saw the opportunity to explore in a familiar European setting the very elements that European cinema is habitually denied: true Opulence of Décor, and the Mystique of the Movie Star. He aimed to create a film that would be gentle, humorous and unpretentious, and make for a soothing, almost contemplative experience of deceleration and elegance.
“The Tourist” was shot in 58 days from late February to early May 2010 and released by Columbia Pictures in early December of the same year. It generated US$ 278 million at the worldwide box office and was nominated for three Golden Globe Awards in the Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Actress: Comedy categories. It was nominated three times at the 37th People's Choice Awards (CBS), winning Favorite Movie Actor for Johnny Depp. It was nominated for three 2011 Teen Choice Awards (Fox) in the Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Actress: Action categories, winning the latter two for Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. It also won the Redbox Movie Award 2011 for Best Drama, making it the only film ever to be nominated for awards in Comedy, Action and Drama categories.
Florian is a member of the International Council at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and the Bavarian and Northrhine-Westphalian Orders of Merit. In 2013 he was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.
[People often ask me about my own experience of the GDR, which was very limited]. I sometimes wonder if, when they meet Ang Lee, who made Brokeback Mountain, they always ask, ‘Are you gay? Are you a cowboy?’ It would be very depressing if you could only make films about your own experience.
from: Lecture at Cambridge University, 10 October 2008
A serious film will acknowledge the darkness of mankind, but it will end on some kind of message of hope. It's very easy to write impressive dark stuff. The hard thing is to take the dark stuff and suggest a solution, even to hint at a solution.
from: Interview with Shawn Levy in The Oregonian, February 18, 2007
If writing and directing is really just about expressing myself, then critics shouldn't matter, then awards shouldn't matter, and awards for critics should matter even less. But I believe that any form of artistic expression is an attempt to connect. And I have a desperate desire to know that my feelings about mankind are the same as other people's, or - to stay with the color analogy- if my green is really your green. So I write this story about the color green, using all my senses, I describe it in words, in music, through costumes and light, and I find people crazy enough to give me millions of dollars to spend on that endeavor. I try to make it as personal as humanly possible, caring only about how I see green, ignoring the temptation to recycle descriptions of that color that have at some point found general acceptance. And then the film is released and I wait with great anxiety over what the reaction will be. Will they say: We’re not quite sure what color this guy is trying to describe? That would mean that either I am all alone with my view of the world, or I don’t have the skill correctly to express what I feel. Both pretty depressing outcomes. But when the review says: This is clearly green like it hasn’t been seen before, or at least hasn’t been seen in recent memory, then I am almost ecstatically happy, because for a moment it takes away the doubt and loneliness.
from: Speech at the 32nd Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, 14 January 2007
You wouldn't believe the number of people who send me film ideas. But the truth is - every filmmaker or aspiring filmmaker has a chest full of good ideas in his study or attic. Sticking with the idea. That is the difficult part. Converting an idea into a finished screenplay. Living with the doubt. Living with the madness.
from: Lecture at UCLA, 12 May 2009
When you have a seminal idea for a project, one that really moves you -and that idea can be as tiny as one image- what you are given is a tuning fork for the entire film. You now know what the film is supposed to sound like, what it's tonality is. As you're writing the screenplay, as you're directing the film, you always go back to that tuning fork, try and see if the lines, the actors, the costumes, the locations fit into the tone. Only you can really decide if they do, because only you have that tuning fork.
from: Seminar at the WGA, 18 April 2012
The great thing about art is that - when done right- it can actually be truer than reality.The word for poetry and fiction in German —Dichtung— actually means density. It tells us that art is of the same texture as reality, but more dense. In fiction, there is more reality per cubic centimeter than with the looser and less dense facts.
from: Lecture at MoMA, 10 November 2007
All men are born with an inner window through which they can perceive the mysterious simple beauties of the world. But as we grow older, this window becomes clouded with the dust of everyday life and occupations. The filthier this window becomes, the less we can see and the more we lose our human nature, becoming joyless automatons who have given up hope. It is the role of art to wipe this window clean again, and give us back our souls. Most works of art, like the little boys at red lights who for a small coin will wipe their dirty cloths over your windscreen, merely dab at the window, and leave us in a doubt whether it is actually cleaner afterwards that it was before. Some art is really anti-art, because it soils the window without even wanting to or pretending to be doing anything else. But then there is art which, as if it were using a divine detergent for that inner window, will suddenly have it sparkle and shine like the Hope Diamond. It gives you back your human nature and changes your life… to the better.
from: Why Film is my chosen medium - submission Richard Attenborough's essay competition at Oxford University, April 1996
Wenn ich Filme, die ich für bedeutend halte, vor meinem geistigen Auge Revue passieren lasse, etwa “Fanny und Alexander” (Ingmar Bergman), “Drei Farben: Rot” (Krzysztof Kieślowski), “Das Fest” (Thomas Vinterberg), “Amores Perros” (Alejandro González Iñárritu), “Lola rennt” (Tom Tykwer), “Ikiru” (Akira Kurosawa), “Belle de Jour” (Luis Buñuel), “Jerry Maguire” (Cameron Crowe), “Der talentierte Mr. Ripley” (Anthony Minghella), “Blue Velvet” (David Lynch) –, dann wird mir klar, dass sie vielleicht nur eine Sache gemeinsam haben: das enorme Risiko, das der Regisseur dabei trägt; die Möglichkeit, dass der Film auch hätte unendlich schlecht und peinlich werden können, wenn nur ein paar kleine Regie-Entscheidungen anders ausgefallen wären. (…) Sie fliegen so hoch, weil Flughöhe identisch ist mit Fallhöhe.
aus: Im Labyrinth des Minotaurus - Aufsatz in Kino! (Essay- und Redensammlung), Suhrkamp 2015
Für mich (…) ist die nächste, direkteste und ehrlichste Kunst die der Schauspielerei: Ohne den Umweg über Pinsel, Meißel und Trompeten spricht hier ein Mensch in seiner leiblichen Reinform zum anderen.
aus: Scheinwerfer - Aufsatz im Philosophie Magazin März/April 2012
Ich finde, allzuoft verhalten sich Filmemacher oder generell Künstler ähnlich wie Politiker, als ob die Aussagen, die wir machen, bei allen Menschen ankommen müssten, damit wir uns sicher fühlen können. Es ist manchmal doch auch wichtig, zu provozieren oder ein Projekt anzugehen, das noch nicht bis ins letzte ausformuliert und durchdacht sein mag, bei dem man aber spürt, daß man es genau jetzt in die Welt bringen muß, und sei es nur, damit auch andere darüber nachdenken können. Das müssen wir uns erlauben können, es ist aber in einem Klima, in dem es nur um Geld geht, sehr schwierig. Deshalb ist unser Filmförderungssystem – früher habe ich da anders gedacht – der Kunst wirklich förderlich.
aus: Über das Deutsche im Filmemachen -Vortrag an der Nationalgalerie 25. November 2009
Natürlich orientiere ich mich eher an den Großen als am Mittelmaß. Ist es nicht sinnvoller, mit Schiller und Jesus fiktive Zwiesprache über Literatur und Moral zu halten, als mit Werner Bergengruen und Pfarrer Fliege? Aber Sie werden nirgends eine Äußerung von mir finden, in der ich mich mit irgendjemandem auf eine Stufe stelle. Das käme mir nie in den Sinn. Wo man selber steht und einzuordnen ist, weiß doch niemand, auch nicht die Journalisten. Und wer sich über so etwas Gedanken macht, der lebt ein sehr ungesundes, ich möchte sagen: sehr unkünstlerisches Leben.
aus: Interview mit Susanne Hermaski, Sueddeutsche Zeitung: Bayern, 29. Juni 2011
Essays, lectures and speeches by Florian, as well as panels and in-depth discussion