This first feature won Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck the Oscar in 2007 for Best Foreign Film and I can see why. What a wonderful film! It takes place in East Germany in 1980s and concerns a successful playwright (Sebastian Koch) and his gorgeous actress girlfriend (Martina Gedeck) who are put under surveillance by Stasi, the secret police, in order to find something to use against the writer because a high ranking minister has a thing for the actress and wants him out of the way. Their apartment is bugged and an agent is set up in the attic listening to their every conversation, taking notes, making reports. Friends come and go and anything they say may be used against them without any court of law. But it is mostly just regular old boring conversation. Then a dear friend, a talented but blacklisted director, kills himself and the writer feels compelled to say something. So he decides to write a piece for Der Spiegel in West Germany, thereby putting himself directly in the police state’s sights if they find out who wrote the piece. The article is about how the East Germans decided to stop keeping statistics on suicides.

The script for this film is very smart and very subtle, and the thing that makes this movie work is Ulhrich Muhe playing the character of Agent Wiesler, the Stasi officer in charge of this operation. Wiesler starts out as one of the bad guys, a cog in the police state machine, eager to put away anyone who says anything vaguely anti-socialist. But as this particular surveillance job continues, he develops a sympathy for the couple and when information that might be very damaging appears, he begins to alter his reports to reflect a more mundane cover story. The tension this creates is amazing. You’re not sure if he is playing a game. Will he decide to turn them in? Or will he get caught for his deceptions and thrown in jail himself? In the film’s opening, the audience is told that the East German secret police employed a network of 100,000 staff and 200,000 informants to spy on its own citizens. The motto of Stasi was the “Shield and Sword of the Party” and its stated goal was to “Know everything”. The feeling that everyone in the whole country is under surveillance and the pressure that it exerts on every moment of your everyday life is the creepiest part. By the end of the film, the Berlin Wall has come down and you really understand what a momentous occasion that was for these people in a way I never had before.

I highly recommend The Lives of Others for anyone who appreciates a great drama, with a great script and excellent acting. It is, of course, subtitled, but I was glued to it start to finish. And I cried, so bring some tissues.

(Upcoming note: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s second feature is The Tourist, filming now with Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Paul Bettany and Rufus Sewell)

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