German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has said that Western audiences (those from West Berlin, he means, but it's all the more true for those of us points farther West) tend to regard his debut feature, The Lives of Others, as a thriller, while East Berliners experience it as a kind of therapy. The stunning thing about The Lives of Others, a nominee for the best foreign language film Oscar that all but swept the German Lola awards last year, is that it's equally powerful as both. It's an intricate, ambiguous and deeply satisfying movie, a tautly plotted tale of state surveillance and personal betrayal that ultimately becomes an ode to the transformative power of art.
The film opens in 1984 in East Berlin, where we see Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) a captain of the East German secret police, teaching a class in extreme interrogation techniques. These include sleep deprivation, the spouting of Orwellian paradoxes (if the prisoner believes the state capable of detaining him for no reason, that belief alone is enough to justify his arrest), and, in a creepy detail, the collection of the prisoner's seat cushion after the interview to be preserved as an odor sample for police dogs. The real intrigue begins when Wiesler is assigned to bug and monitor the apartment of a successful writer, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), and his girlfriend, a famous stage actress named Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Georg is neither a subversive nor a party loyalist: He's a go-along-to-get-along guy, too comfortable with his success to question the regime closely, even as it closes in on his scruffier and more outspoken fellow artists. But Wiesler's superior, Col. Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), wants to further his career by impressing the party bigwig Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), who is looking to get his swinish mitts on Christa-Maria by any means necessary. And Wiesler himself is a rigid ideologue, a socialist automaton who mistrusts all artists on principle—even if the meticulous care with which he runs his own surveillance operation hints at a thwarted creative desire.
I don't want to give away too much about the film's second act, in which Wiesler starts to steal the couple's poetry books, falsify his reports to headquarters, and seek Christa-Maria out during his off hours for anonymous encounters in cafes. I'll just say that, more than any film since Coppola's The Conversation, The Lives of Others gets at the perverse intimacy of the surveillance relationship. Monitoring someone's every banal conversation and passionate moment (typing up notes on Georg's birthday, Wiesler writes: "[They] unwrap gifts, then presumably have intercourse") is an act that places both listener and listened-to in a strange position of powerlessness. The wiretapee is subjected to the sickening indignity of having his privacy stolen away moment by moment, while the wiretapper is trapped in a limbo of vicarious existence, waiting for something to happen that will justify that invasion. Bugging someone's house, you become at once their lover and their enemy. The film's ingeniously structured story mines this paradoxical relationship for all its dramatic possibility, keeping us guessing till the last moment about who will betray whom, and with what consequences.
Ulrich Mühe, an East German theater actor who was himself tracked by the Stasi before the reunification, plays Wiesler not as a psychotic sadist but as an emotionally impoverished bureaucrat. His unnaturally stiff posture and futuristic gray jacket give him an artificial, almost robotic quality. Without resorting to pathos, Mühe finds the humanity in this ascetic, soldierly man, especially in the devastating coda, set four years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He steals the movie even from the top-billed Martina Gedeck (Mostly Martha), who's haunting as the self-loathing, drug-addicted Christa-Maria. Sebastian Koch has the lothario-gone-to-seed look of a midperiod Robert Wagner and invests the writer with just the right mixture of idealism and self-regard. The movie falters only in the character of the repulsive Hempf. His overtures toward the actress are so crudely villainous that they play like simple melodrama, where there could have been a subtle exploration of the sexual favors that grease the wheels of the police state.
Only a film crew with some experience of living in such a state could do such a merciless job rendering the joyless, yellowish-gray interiors of the pre-glasnost GDR. Never has on-screen food looked less appetizing: In the Stasi cafeteria, officers and recruits alike bolt down dingy bowls of gruel and hockey pucks of fried potato. The film's general atmosphere of drab anomie renders the rare moments of pleasure—including a scene in which Georg plays the piano, eliciting tears from the eavesdropping Wiesler—all the more moving. Von Donnersmarck's film is set in a world where freedom isn't an abstract concept to be taken for granted—it's a distant promise that is enough to make bureaucrats in headphones weep.