We Americans complain of Big Brother's unblinking eye in the post-Patriot Act, corporate email era—as well we should. But, as The Lives of Others makes plain, things could be worse. Set in East Berlin circa 1984, when one in 100 citizens of the German Democratic Republic was a government informant, this aptly chilly look at communist surveillance culture could never have slipped past state security 20 years ago—even if it ends up concluding that a fastidious Stasi snoop isn't beyond redemption. Peeping on an allegedly subversive playwright from the discomfort of a frozen attic, his huge headphones doing double duty as earmuffs, secret police captain Gerd Wiesler sits in his down jacket and...sheds a tear. In the years before the wall fell, it had started to crack. Leave an East German spy in the cold too long and he might long to thaw.
Beloved in its homeland (and recently nominated for a Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar), The Lives of Others is the first feature by 33-year-old writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose Oxford education in philosophy, political science, and economics must have come in handy with this material—as well as the fact that his dad's cousin worked for Socialist Unity Party hard-ass Erich Honecker. Cleverly reflexive, the movie gathers extra layers by making its police-state victim a dramatist, and by suggesting that occupational spying might have been something like having a front row seat at every performance. Encouraged by his bosses, Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) trains his steely blue eyes on Georg Dreyman's latest play, with its assembly line of female factory workers shuffling their feet on a depressingly spare stage, and sees an enemy of the state. Thereafter inspecting the dramatist's personal life with the play's fashionable lead actress (Martina Gedeck), Wiesler, aided by wiretaps, writes the secret police equivalent of a plot summary: "Georg and Christa-Maria unwrap presents, then presumably have intercourse."
Mühe, previously indelible as the besieged patriarch in Michael Haneke's home-invasion thriller Funny Games, here lends his translucent skin and hollowed-out facial features to the role of a man who clearly needs to get out more. Wiesler, who collects human odor samples to keep track of dubious citizens, would seem to find cause for suspicion of anyone who has more of a life than he—that is, anyone. Observing the playwright (Sebastian Koch) casually kick a soccer ball with kids in the street, the captain dutifully takes notes; apparently such spontaneous frivolity can be incriminating. Von Donnersmarck, to his credit, doesn't put a lot of fun on the screen: Such is the Stasi stranglehold on culture that a cocktail party among intellectuals appears fraught with tension. Fear is easily contagious in this environment, yet the initial confidence with which playwright and actress defend themselves while under investigation appears superhuman—or merely implausible. Particularly as celebrity equals influence, even under totalitarianism, what would make these brainy sophisticates think their stardom could keep them immune to the state's blacklisting contempt for "traitors"?
On the other hand, it turns out that Wiesler, for all his electronic surveillance equipment, can't unearth any tangible dirt on the artist—though he does discover why the Minister of Culture is particularly invested in dissolving the relationship between the playwright and his girlfriend. Jealousy appears a key motivating force of the Stasi, and Wiesler expresses his own, sad form of it—accompanied by mournful violin strains on the soundtrack.
More political intrigue: Has young von Donnersmarck whitewashed the Stasi by giving his Wiesler the faint hint of a heart? Certainly the film suggests that East German totalitarianism had, before the end, acknowledged the error of its ways—which seems no less likely a scenario than that of rats fleeing a sinking ship. If the filmmaker commits a crime, it's in pushing the character's rehabilitation slightly too far—about as much as the weight of a teardrop. The secret policeman claims it takes 40 hours of interrogation to break down a suspect; von Donnersmarck manages to dismantle Capt. Wiesler in a mere two hours and 15 minutes. Evidently the model of the new and improved East Germany is, as elsewhere, efficiency.