The Lives of Others, winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, as well as numerous European awards, is a smooth, suspenseful film. Set in East Berlin in the 1980s, the film tells the story of East German surveillance of a writer, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), and his stage actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Dreyman and Sieland become targets of interest by the secret police, called the Stasi, which had 100,000 employees and 200,000 informants spying on citizens during this period. Surveillance was ubiquitous. Typewriters were registered so that anything typed could be traced to its origin, and people--especially artists--were frequently interrogated and imprisoned by the feared Stasi.
After extensively wiring their home to eavesdrop on all conversations and activities, one of the loyal secret service interrogators and spies, Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), assumes the job of listening in on the lives of these artists. As Wiesler eavesdrops, he finds himself becoming increasingly sympathetic to their plight and cause. He steals a book by German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht from Dreyman's library and is moved by what he reads. His sympathy leads him to deviate slightly from procedure, and initially he excuses it by claiming that he will find more condemning evidence. Later, he jeopardizes his career and freedom by being even more supportive of these artists.
The Lives of Others is director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's first feature film, but you can't tell that he's a rookie. The quality production displays the skill and assurance of an experienced veteran.
All the acting performances are impressive, but Muhe is clearly the star. While some actors command attention and receive acclaim by dominating a film with flamboyant and bombastic acting, Muhe wrote the text on subtlety. Slight expression changes on his otherwise emotionless face speak volumes. His minimalist acting conveys the spirit of the film because Muhe himself acts as if he has been under surveillance all his life.
Instead of concluding at the logical climax of this story, The Lives of Others continues for several more minutes looking at the lives of these courageous characters a few years later. This unusual feature further enriches the experience of viewing this film.
We leave the theater feeling that we've received a rare gift, a chance to look into an unfortunate time and place in recent history when the rights of humans were frequently violated by government. But The Lives of Others is more than simply a window into the past. Journalist and editor Mark Ames writes in his book Going Portal that, because of increasing surveillance, the American workplace is currently, "More Soviet than what the Soviets ever created." So if recent trends continue in the U.S., this film may also be ominously prophetic.