"The Lives of Others" is a Cold War thriller that needs no guns or Checkpoint Charlie standoffs to fire up its audience. In this return to communism's dark days in the former East Germany, the hand-to-hand combat is psychological -- and for us, much more engrossing.
A leading Oscar contender for Best Foreign Language Film, the German movie begins in 1984 -- five years before the Berlin Wall came down -- when the secret police, or Stasi, routinely bugged, tailed and intimidated citizens. At that time, the ratio of government informers to regular citizens was high: about 1 in 50.
To watch "Lives" is not just to enjoy a fabulously constructed timepiece; it's to appreciate a deft cautionary tale. While scenes of tight-lipped agents listening to intercepted phone conversations on reel-to-reel tape recorders may strike some as quaint, the implications ring loud and clear. Writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's extraordinary feature debut offers prescient lessons about the danger of societies in which governments are given free rein to monitor their citizens and Internet users voluntarily post their most intimate details on the Web. Dusty history lesson? This movie's downright contemporary.
Plotted as tautly as a cop procedural but playing more like modern allegory, "Lives" personalizes its Orwellian world through the eyes of Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muehe), a frosty Stasi officer who, when we meet him, is treating his military students to an audio recording of his latest "successful" interrogation. What's immediately clear -- beyond the psychological brutalizing of his victims -- is Gerd's faith in the system. He firmly believes such measures are necessary for building a better society.
Gerd's ideology is soon tested when he's dispatched to wiretap and investigate Georg Dreyman (an endearing Sebastian Koch), a playwright whose pro-worker dramas have made him the talk of East Berlin. The more Gerd uncovers about Georg, his actress-girlfriend, Christa-Maria (played with quiet radiance by Martina Gedeck), and their circle of friends, the more he questions the purpose of this mission.
"Lives" makes a dark companion piece to "Good Bye Lenin!," the German comedy that portrayed the same era as a benevolent if State-controlled utopia. Where the 2003 film saw only innocence and almost neighborly patriotism, von Donnersmarck -- who grew up in West Berlin but made childhood visits to his parents' old haunts in the G.D.R. -- sees a world of paranoia and foreboding.
This is a place, after all, where Georg's sheer lack of involvement in politics is grounds for surveillance, and where citizens intentionally speak in empty banalities, knowing their words are probably being taped. Trust between friends, even lovers, is always being renegotiated. An entire society seems reduced to an intimidated hush. Its streets and corridors appear to have been painted from a palette of gloom.
Rather than plunging viewers into a depression, this atmosphere makes the movie's moments of humanity practically glow in the dark. We witness most of these occasions through Gerd -- encased in headphones -- as he eavesdrops on the lives of others and takes a moral reckoning of his life.
All the performers in "Lives" bring human dimension to a drama that might otherwise have become too schematic a morality play. Wiesler (who bears a passing resemblance to the actor Kevin Spacey) is the one who truly leads audiences through this emotionally rewarding journey, as we watch the dawning of conscience in his face. It's an evolution from ideological automaton to compassionate being. And it's through his performance that comes the reassuring take-home message: To truly understand people, all the sophisticated surveillance equipment in the world -- the satellites of today or the low-tech bugs of yesteryear -- cannot match the human heart.