The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) is one of the best films I've seen in a long, long time. It's sad, thoughtful and redemptive, and it deals with major themes. We're in East Germany a few years before the fall of the Berlin wall. The Stasi are everywhere, watching everyone and punishing in brutal or subtle ways anyone who might be even an implied threat to the government. Their greatest tool is the system of informers that reaches everywhere, people who may relay indiscretions to the Stasi because they believe in what they are doing, but more often are compromised into doing so. People are given terrible choices to either work with the Stasi as informers or see their careers or their children's futures destroyed. One-third of the East German population is kept under Stasi surveillance. Everyone, it seems, is being watched by someone.
Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is a playwright who has made his accommodations with the regime, has won awards and has learned not to go too far. The mere fact that he is seen as reliable makes him a subject of Stasi interest. That, and because his lover, the actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), is coveted by a powerful official who wants Dreyman ruined. Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), a dedicated, colorless Stasi officer, noted for his reliability and interrogation skills, is assigned the job of monitoring Dreyman. This means installing bugs in Dreyman's apartment where Dreyman lives with Sieland, setting up 24 hour monitoring, recording everything and preparing reports. Wiesler takes his share of listening in. Weisler seems to have no purpose but his dedication to the ideals of the East German system, but even he can see the corruption of those ideals. He has no friends to speak of except his boss, who knows which way the wind can shift. Dreyman, on the other hand, is a handsome man of talent who loves Christa and who has seen a close friend and talented director banned from the theater for speaking too clearly. Dreyman gradually finds the conscience he had put on hold in order to be successful. Wiesler gradually finds himself, through listening in, drawn to an awareness of the compromises and corruption he knows has seeped into a system he once believed in. Even more subtly, he finds himself drawn into the lives of Dreyman and Christa-Maria. Slowly, cautiously and anonymously, Wiesler begins to protect Dreyman. All the while we are witness to the pervasive spying on people, the pettiness, the corruption of authority, the use of subtle threats to keep people in line, the almost comic meticulousness of the Stasi and their obsessive record keeping on everyone. The conclusion of the film brings us well past the fall of the Berlin wall, when the full evidence of Stasi spying and the corruption of so many to be informers became evident. We see what happened to both Dreyman and Wiesler. I found the ending to be very, very emotional.
This was director von Donnersmarck's first feature film. He also was the writer. The acting is just as good as the film, particularly Muhe, Koch and Gedeck. Muhe has perhaps the toughest job. He has to show us this dedicated functionary first relentlessly breaking a suspect through calm, psychological questioning, then gradually, gradually letting us see Wiesler's doubts and humanity as he listens into to the lives of Dreyman and Sieland. Muhe makes us aware of Wiesler's changing outlook no faster than Weisler becomes aware of them himself. It's a subtle, strong performance.