The whole filmography of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, German director, producer and editor with Austrian citizenship, can be considered as a kind of hymn to filmmaking and its pedagogical function.
The director in three movements
Four short films, three feature films and numerous awards: the career of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, German director, producer and editor with Austrian citizenship, is a kind of hymn to filmmaking and its pedagogical function, whatever genre it may concern.
The three feature films, written and directed by the director from Cologne, are all different from one another – at times divergent – although they are connected by certain basic elements, such as, for example, a strong reference to art and literature, which have always been his great passions. And so it is that The Lives of Others, The Tourist and Never Look Away fall into that series of strange filmographies – made up of different genres – where the only constant seems to be the name (in this case the names) of the director. In reality, as we will see, one can glimpse a fil-rouge that connects everything.
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck was born in Cologne, then West Germany, and grew up in New York, Berlin, Frankfurt and Brussels. Adding his travels to his studies in Oxford, St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and Munich, the result is soon clear: five languages spoken fluently and unlimited interest in cultures and traditions. For example, while writing The Lives of Others, Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film in 2007, Henckel von Donnersmarck benefited from the special atmosphere of the Heiligenkreuz Abbey, a famous monastery in the Vienna Woods, where his uncle was abbot at the time.
To make a film about Stasi control and espionage in the GDR of the 1980s, the prerequisite, at least according to Florian, was the monastic silence. This, together with the organist’s advice, gave the final result a certain solemnity, in complete antithesis to the theme, but perhaps, precisely for this reason, decisive for the success among audiences and critics. As a side note, the protagonist Dreyman (played by Sebastian Koch), object of espionage and surveillance, is a renowned playwright and intellectual: a recurring theme, as we said.
Passionate reader and lover of literature, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has said that he was very impressed when, as a child, he watched the black-and-white silent film Variety (Ewald André Dupont, 1925), set in a circus, at the MoMa. His interest in cinema seems to have developed during the screening of this film, and his studies in Munich, in this sense, seem to have been the ideal fulfillment representing his education, considering that his graduation short film, Dobermann, broke the record for the number of awards won by a student at the Bavarian university.
Before all this, Henckel von Donnersmarck spent two years in Leningrad studying Russian. His interest in Russian literature, and in particular Dostoevsky, can be clearly observed in his second film The Tourist, a hybrid of detective story and comedy, and perhaps because of this badly received by critics. The plot, an altogether entertaining manhunt between Paris and Venice, is enriched by a couple of Dostoevskyan elements taken directly from Demons. From the Russian criminals named after the novel’s protagonists, to the role of the police and government, Henckel von Donnersmarck’s obsession with the Russian writer – as he himself defined it – is paid homage here, also mindful of the years spent in the Dostoevskyan city.
Married to Christine Asschenfeldt, former director of Creative Commons, and father of three children, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has for years lived in the city of angels that, more than any other city in the world, is synonymous with cinema. Having become a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Art and Science in 2007, the director received his second Oscar nomination with his third and – for now – last film, Never Look Away. The three epochs of recent German history told through the eventful life of an artist are freely inspired by the life and works of Gerhard Richter, the popular modern painter.
In a big metaphor that considers the artist as author, but also as person, Florian places himself behind the camera and composes with harmony and precision a hymn to art, music and, in general, to life, including death, as a fundamental part of life itself. Contrasting criticisms aside (which are now commonplace), Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s talent seems to have reached maturity in his third film, as if he wanted to convey the importance of culture in his life, communicating and teaching in turn. And doing so in a remarkable way.