A leading Oscar contender for Best Foreign Language Film, the German movie "The Lives of Others"begins in 1984 (five years before the Berlin Wall came down) when the secret police, or Stasi, routinely bugged, tailed and intimidated its citizens. At that time, the ratio of government informers to regular citizens was high: about one in 50.

Plotted as tautly as a cop procedural but playing more like a 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.

To watch "Lives" is not just to enjoy a fabulously constructed timepiece; it's to appreciate a deft cautionary tale. Though 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 is downright contemporary.

-- Desson Thomson

The Lives of OthersR, 137 minutes

Contains sexual scenes and nudity. In German with subtitles. Area theaters.