If you lived under Communist rule in the German Democratic Republic, there was a good chance the government was spying on you. It might be a full-blown investigation by the security police, the Stasi -- or perhaps just your kindly neighbor had turned informant.
In The Lives of Others, a compelling drama set in 1984, during the waning days of the GDR, East Berliner Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is among the lucky. A successful playwright, and favorite of the General Secretary's wife, he is free to indulge his artistic talents, canoodle with his actress girlfriend, Christa Maria, and mingle with his shaggy intellectual pals.
But the Minister of Culture takes a shine to Christa (Martina Gedeck), and reckons Dreyman might be hiding something. Look hard enough, goes the state ethos, and subversion will be found. So, the Stasi assigns its best agent, Capt. Weisler (Ulrich Mühe), to bug and monitor Dreyman's apartment.
From here, The Lives of Others knits several strands -- political critique, treatise on the responsibilities of artists, the slippery nature of human behavior -- into a broody thriller-cum-psychological drama. Like atomic particles under reaction, the observers and the observed find themselves inextricably colliding and transforming. It's obvious that Weisler's surveillance will upset the initial relative equilibrium. But just how so is a lesson in unintended consequences.
The well-crafted Lives is the impressive debut feature for young German director Florian Henckle von Donnersmarck, who also wrote the script. (The film snapped up this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Film.) With a few deft strokes, von Donnersmarck conveys the joyless claustrophobia of living in a socialist-paradise-turned-police-state; even the prostitutes run on an ordered schedule. Paranoia is rampant -- and giving in to despair seems almost noble.
Yet people can be transformed -- by their emotions, both virtuous and petty, and, as the title suggests, by observing the lives of others. As such, Lives' two entwined protagonists -- Dreyman and Weisler -- move out of their carefully constructed comfortable niches, choosing provocative action over glib loyalties.
Von Donnersmarck taps many fine actors, but the film is stolen by Mühe as Weisler, the investigator torn between his loyalties and sensitivities. Weisler's face remains impassive even in his solitude, but Mühe's body language reveals the lonely soul of the Stasi hard case.
The film's coda is presented somewhat clumsily; what it reveals may not even be necessary to the audience, with its privileged information. Yet for all the critique of the GDR and its failures, von Donnersmarck, who was just a teen-ager when the Berlin Wall came down, also wants Lives to be about reconciliation and what light survived in the darkness. The end is sentimental, to be sure, but after two hours of feeling the Stasi close in, you'll likely welcome it. In German, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., March 2. Regent Square