Bend it like Von Donnersmarck: how to manipulate cameras and colours to make the vital truth truer and unforgettable


Supermoon, 1 January 2018: same scene, different cameras (above and below)

Of course cameras tell lies, even if ‘The camera cannot lie’ was so widely accepted as a truism, for decades, that it became an irritating cliché. The power of cameras as tools for sophisticated manipulations on the side of the angels, not devils, emerges from the most generous, revelatory interview with a film director that we have ever watched — a feature among the bonuses on the DVD version of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s eleven year-old masterpiece, The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen).

We remembered a section of that conversation titled Authenticity — about how von Donnersmarck used colour to engage and work on his audience subliminally — as we were studying startling divergences between pictures we took of the New Year’s Day supermoon, using two cameras whose factory settings we have never changed. Why, we wondered, did the baked-in choices (‘default parameters’) of one device yield the souped-up indigo sky of a Disney production, as in the image below, while the other — same view, different angle — gave us virtually what we had actually been looking at (above), no patch of any shade of blue discernible, and conveying what it felt like to be shooting nearly blind into darkness that was somehow both peaceful and faintly dangerous and, except in the pictures’ shimmering focus, dense and deeply inky?

In his account of making The Lives of Others, the director described his chief dilemma. How do you tell the truth about something horrible of the highest importance, giving your viewers a palpable sense of what it was like, but without repelling them, and holding their attention for two hours and seventeen minutes?

He explains how he decided that using a radically constricted colour scheme could help him to steer his tricky course between those objectives to tell his story about the transformation of an officer in the Stasi, the secret police of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR or East Germany), after this officer’s discovery — through his  unintentional absorption of poetry and music — of his heart and conscience.

Von Donnersmarck, who was born in West Germany but travelled with his parents to the GDR as a child, felt that he had to immerse his audience in the claustrophobic atmosphere of this surveillance state whose citizens lived in fear of sadistic punishers — a culture of informers, collaborators and liars in which friends betrayed friends and lovers. It was a place that looked drab, above all, but if he portrayed this with a straightforward representation, he risked losing that audience.

Here is how he describes the evolution of his central idea for his drama, in which the Stasi officer is played by Ulrich Mühe, who was once — in real life — an actor in East Germany and actual Stasi target whose Stasi file was part of 110 miles of such files crammed with details of the lives of individual GDR citizens, stored in archives in which von Donnersmarck’s team was the first to have been granted permission to film:

I once read this Lenin quote in a book by Maxim Gorky [in] which Lenin said to him, ‘I don’t want to listen to my favourite piece of music — L’Appassionata by Beethoven — any more, because it makes me want to stroke people’s heads and tell them nice things, and I have to smash in those heads to accomplish my revolution.’

And that quote kind of stuck with me, because it seems one of those extreme examples of someone shutting out their own humanity and just going by principle.

And so I thought about creating a film situation where I could force Lenin to listen to the Appassionata and thereby give history a different course. And Lenin turned into Ulrich Mühe and L’Appassionata into that beautiful piece that Gabriel Yared wrote for our film.

Though The Lives of Others has been showered with prizes and awards, including the 2007 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, it has been criticised for the very hyper-reality that von Donnersmarck went to such pains to engineer. An American specialist in German studies, Wendy Westphal, concluded in a minutely argued paper about it in 2012 that ‘while Das Leben der Anderen strives to be an authentic representation of the past through its incorporation of real props and on-site filming, […] its plot serves as a subtext that exposes the very concepts of “truth” and “reality” as, at best, elusive ideals.’

This and other objections to the film are well worth reading — especially by those of us who recognise some of the criticism as legitimate, yet still cannot praise it enough. Continuing controversy means continuing attention, and this is a work of art that should be dissected and discussed everywhere, by as many viewers as possible — not least because the amassing of information about us by governments and companies could hardly be more disturbing and topical, thirty-three years after 1984, in which it is set.

To that end, we offer the following transcript of the section of the von Donnersmarck interview by which we were most surprised. There is one other director paying exceptionally close attention to colour that we’d love to hear expounding on this subject — Pedro Almodóvar, whose electrifying interiors of his early films, drawing on a radically different part of the spectrum from von Donnersmarck’s GDR, put apricot and cherry red next to turquoise blue and chrome yellow in ways we’ve found equally indelible.

After I’d finished the screenplay, I realized that one of the main challenges would be, how do you create a world that people would want to sit and watch for two hours and seventeen minutes. And if I’d just created a kind of drab, completely realistic GDR, people wouldn’t want, er, … wouldn’t want to do that. It would just be too visually exhausting.

So I thought of something that people used to do a lot — and in American films too, actually — which was come up a very clear colour concept and with a very clear palette of colours and thereby create a visual world that was so consistent that it became beautiful.

It’s just like, if you take a film like Indiana Jones, for example. That is a film with a clear and beautiful colour concept, almost going as far as to have a texture concept. It’s just like if you close your eyes and think of Indiana Jones and think, what colours do I think of? You see the brown of Indiana Jones’ hat and whip. You know, that’s one clear colour. You see that kind of yellow sand. And you see maybe some kind of red of a desert sunset. It’s of those colours that the film is made up and they stay with that pretty consistently.

So when you think back to that film, when you feel back to that film, [… it’s …] like they created a universe for you that you can go back to in your fantasies. And I wanted to do the same here. And so I thought, what can I show that would still be true? And so with my production designer, with whom I spent about half a year developing that concept, we watched many, many, many films from the GDR. We looked at hundreds of photo books and searched in our own memories.

Then I realised that there was not so much clear blue in the GDR, and not so much red, and that maybe we would achieve an authentic GDR and a beautiful GDR by eliminating those colours altogether. And then I tried that out just by cutting out objects and saw that basically, if we replaced everything that was blue with green objects, if we replaced everything that was red by a kind of brown-y orange, then we would actually create a slightly stylized world that still felt functional and still felt like the actual GDR.

Our brilliant costume designer also made costumes to fit that and to fit every individual set. Actually, that was an amazing thing — the communication between the production designer and the costume designer. They really worked for one another, and a few sets we changed based on a beautiful costume, and the other way around of course, very often.

We created a GDR which is in a way truer than the true thing. [… When we travelled around the GDR for the presentation of the film …] people would come up to us and say, wow! it’s incredible, you know, that’s exactly how it was. […] And you know, that’s because in our memories things become stronger than they were — so if there was a dominance of certain colours, those other colours we almost forget about. So in a way, we’ve created a GDR that is truer than the real thing. That is real-er than the actual GDR and, I hope, more beautiful.

disneyish supermoon 1.1.2018


Dispatch from a time-starved blogger: the bulge is p-G … and p-G is the bulge

We were surprised to learn that the longest gap between entries in this blog has alarmed some regular readers. (… Sorry, truly …) Someone dear and close — though physically remote — wrote in a state of high alarm seeking reassurance that all was well with us, having forgotten the alert we posted a few weeks ago about the likelihood of other, more pressing demands making it impossible to keep to our old, loose timetable, publishing roughly once a week or every ten days.

There must be a blog visitor or two who thinks that the shock on which we pegged our last entry had turned our typing fingers into useless icicles exactly like the glassy fangs hanging over our front porch all last week. Oh, … and we did have every intention of returning promptly to expand on our exclamation, there, about A. O. Scott’s conception of Steve Jobs as no mere uber-entrepreneur-aesthete but creator of The All — The All-and-All, even. Yet no sooner had we posted in haste than we repented, realising that anything we said would only be repeating reasoning and revelations in earlier entries (on 25 October 2011 and 1 November 2011 ).

The New York Times, by the way, has just redeemed itself — or made up for its temporarily addled film critic’s hyperbole with a calm, well-judged analysis of the fate of the latest Jobs biopic in a Nick Bilton column. Its disclosures about Silicon Valley machinations related to the portrayal of a local hero are worth a close read. (‘”Steve Jobs” Flops at the Box Office and Silicon Valley Cheers‘)

… Has our post-Gutenberg (p-G to friends) hiatus ended? No. We see no change in the pattern of chronic upheavals — moving house, for instance, across hundreds of miles, over several weeks (nearly losing our marbles, every last one, along the way).

Naturally, other scribblers’ reactions to changes in environment and circumstances have been of keen interest, lately. Think back to our post starring Beatrice and Sidney Webb and the Maharaja of Chhatarpur. Presences, absences and surroundings have subtle effects on the most salient requirement, which Beatrice pinpointed in a lament about her inability to keep up her diary during a three-week sojourn in Scotland in which she and Sidney — her impossibly perfect campaigning and writing collaborator — were never apart:

When Sidney is with me I cannot talk to the other self with whom I commune when I am alone — ‘it’ ceases to be present and only reappears when he becomes absent.

She was of course referring to idiosyncratic writing from and of herself, and not the kinds that can be done in partnership — journalism, and (in her day) pamphleteering, or any other fact- and argument-driven nonfiction.

The financially uncompensated keyboard tapping that keeps p-G alive has become more difficult to justify with projects closer to conversations with ‘it’ starved for attention in the recent, seemingly neverending, chaos.

We can only promise to return unpredictably, when we can — though the pressure from inspiration about p-G-related topics fighting to get out and march in lines of text can be intense enough to make us feel for head bulges.

… That word, bulge. … From time to time it reminds us of the ecstasy of watching our elders-and-betters in a long-ago senior school production of Oscar Wilde’s most scintillating, deliciously subversive and wise play, beneath a witty-glittery surface — old even then, but treated undeservingly, now, as a dated Victorian comedy of manners, a relic. Who could ever forget The Importance of Being Earnest? … There is no point in summarising a plot that can be googled in instants, so we offer only a prod or two for the memory of anyone else who knows and loves it. … That brilliantly named governess, Miss Prism, who actually lost one of the characters, Jack, in a handbag at London’s Victoria Station — when he was an orphaned baby. … We cannot remember whether the drama includes the babyhood of someone else, a someone called Algy (Algernon) Moncrieff — any allusions to the time when he had yet to emerge, and wonder whether it was Oscar’s classic that inspired this poem-let as lovely as a tree by an unknown poet:

Algy met a bear,
The bear was bulgy,
The bulge was Algy.


A re-reading is overdue. We have downloaded the play from Project Gutenberg for our next nano-break … and hope to return sooner than later to let Algy …. oops! we mean, p-G, out to play.



Literary sanitisation: Go Set A Watchman on the original Rapunzel! She got pregnant — and oh, the first Snow White’s would-be assassin was her own mother

Rapunzel CADOGAN IMG_8104

Above: a purer and more innocent Rapunzel by the English painter Frank Cadogan Cowper (1877-1958) . Left, below: a book cover closer to the spirit of the Grimms’ collection.

Grimm's Sogen winged monsters

By far the most heartening conclusion from the fiasco following the discovery — actual or concocted, to make a bundle — of the aborted manuscript of To Kill A Mockingbird, decades after the fact, is that people yearn deeply to be nicer than we are. Many thousands who placed advance orders for Go Set A Watchman were disillusioned, and struggled miserably to reconcile their beloved Atticus Finch, the lawyer hero of Mockingbird, with the bitter, cynical racist he became in old age, in Watchman. By now, everyone knows that this transformation did not happen in the sequence in which Alabama’s most celebrated author imagined and wrote her story — the very reverse — but in which, you might say, the genie escaped its bottle.

William Wordsworth, despised by the militantly anti-sentimental for the sweet simplicity of ‘Daffodils,’ is probably disliked by them just as much for an aphorism not quite as well-known:

We live by Admiration, Hope and Love.

The public reaction to Watchman proves that Daffodil Willy was right. And this should hardly surprise us. You could see the figure at the centre of each of the monotheistic religions as a monumental elaboration of the first, inspiring Atticus.

Something funny leaps to mind as you mull over our apparent preference for idealisation.

The old Germanic folktales that the Brothers Grimm collected and wrote down in the 19th century — stories in some cases preserved for aeons, passed from generation to generation in the pre-Gutenberg oral tradition — were scrubbed clean of cruelty and violence in their revised versions, the ones most of us were read in our cots or bunk beds. Our ancestors clearly had stronger stomachs than we do — to hang onto, regurgitate and delight in the narrative equivalent of unsweetened, extra-strength, dark chocolate. Most of our palates can only be tempted by cocoa cut with sugar and cream. It is not easy to imagine the true Grimms’ fairy tales earning many ‘likes’ on Facebook.

On the current home page of the New York Review of Books, you can read a fine account by the novelist and cultural historian Marina Warner of how this purging came about. She blames — or credits — the English:

The [Grimm] brothers had been strongly encouraged to make their scholarship a bit more family-friendly by including … illustrations after they learned of the huge success in England of the first English translation by Edgar Taylor (1823 and 1826), with its quirky, joyous drawings by George Cruikshank. … [T]he tone of the English illustrations changed the tales’ reception, inspiring Dickens to write sentimentally about their innocence …

This is an example of how a technological shift — what appears to be a simple change from delivering stories by the spoken word to print — can be at least partly responsible for culture jumping tracks. Later, in Disney’s retellings in celluloid, the stories could define schmaltz.

Rapunzel, in the Warner exegesis, was knocked up by the valiant suitor who clambered up that astonishing hair. Here are some of her blood-curdling mentions of unhappy families in the Grimms’ compendium, yarns more terrible even than Snow White’s — whose would-be assassin was her own mother, and not her father’s second wife:

‘The Singing Bone’:

The Grimms also acknowledged that the wonderful, shivery tale of “The Singing Bone” bears a resemblance to the famous Scots ballad “The Twa Sisters” … In the Grimms’ tale, rivalry between brothers over a princess drives the plot. But the central, haunting motif of the bone that denounces the murderer recurs in both stories: a passing shepherd sees it sticking out of the riverbank where the murderer has buried the body of his or her victim. In the Scots ballad, it’s the breastbone—which the shepherd strings with the golden hair of the victim. In the Grimms’, it’s a femur or some such. He trims it for a mouthpiece for his pipe and then finds when he puts his lips to it that it sings of its own accord: “Dear shepherd, blowing on my bone…/My brothers killed me years ago!”

‘The Tale of the Juniper Tree’:

… another story that contains that “playful—and therefore paradoxically comforting—terror” of the very best Grimms tales. In this tale, an evil woman kills her stepson so that her daughter, Marlenikin, will inherit the family’s money. She then cooks the boy into a stew and serves him up to his father. When Marlenikin buries the boy’s bones under a juniper tree, he reemerges as a beautiful bird who sings his misfortunes […]

My mother, she smote me,

My father, he ate me,

My sister, sweet Marlenikin,

Gathered all my little bonikins,

Bound them in a silken scarf,

And lay them under the juniper tree.

We also learn from Marina Warner that Wilhelm Grimm, thirteen months younger than his brother Jacob, tidied up some of the stories himself, meting out satisfying, poetic justice:

Dortchen Wild, later Grimm after she married Wilhelm, was one of nine children of neighbors who were close family friends; she is the first source of “The Singing Bone,” but later the brothers amended it, with the possible help of another woman narrator, and Wilhelm both elaborated and trimmed the story, adding an opening “Once upon a time” and tying up loose ends, such as the confession of the evil sibling: “After the fate of the murdered man was revealed, the wicked brother could not deny the deed, and he was sewn up in a sack and drowned.”

Question we have been discussing with a good friend: would children be better prepared for life as it can be — at its most frightful — with the older versions of these confections?

grimms' original cover

The cover of the original English version