A Waking Nightmare

The Stasi--East Germany's omnipotent and greatly feared secret police--employed some 100,000 people, in addition to the 200,000 informers who could be counted on to spy on their neighbors, their friends and their own families. The waking nightmare of this "socialist paradise," a country with the second highest suicide rate in the world, is unforgettably captured in "The Lives of Others," a German political thriller that has racked up more international awards than Helen Mirren, and this month may well win an Oscar as best foreign-language film.

Writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck sets his tale of betrayal, corruption and moral awakening in East Berlin in 1984, five years before the fall of the wall. The system may be rotting from within, but Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), one of the Stasi's most skilled officers, is still a true believer, rooting out the enemies of East German socialism with a ruthless precision born of genuine ideological commitment.

The humorless, ascetic Wiesler is assigned to spy on the celebrated playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his lover and star actress, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Bugging the couple's apartment, he sits monklike in a secret attic, earphones on his head, listening for hours to their lovers' quarrels, their discussions of art and the music they play. What Wiesler discovers is that his assignment is about more than state security: Hempf, a high government minister (Thomas Thieme), lusts after Christa-Maria and wants to see his rival taken off the field. It's made clear to Wiesler that finding dirt on Dreyman could do wonders for the Stasi officer's career. Suddenly Wiesler, against all his training and convictions, begins to feel a strange sympathy for the man and woman whose lives he's secretly entered.

Where this leads is best left for you to discover. It's hard to believe this is von Donnersmarck's first feature. His storytelling gifts have the novelistic richness of a seasoned master. The accelerating plot twists are more than just clever surprises; they reverberate with deep and painful ironies, creating both suspense and an emotional impact all the more powerful because it creeps up so quietly. He creates edge-of-your-seat tension without a single gunshot, car chase or fight scene. Even more remarkable is his grasp of character: he doesn't paint in black and white. To achieve their success, both the gifted playwright and his talented but self-doubting star have had to make accommodations to a regime that has blacklisted many of their closest friends and colleagues. Christa-Maria's plight is the most painful: submit to Hempf's sexual advances or find herself banished from the stage. "The Lives of Others" shows, with devastating clarity and intelligence, how the virus of corruption spreads from a political system into the hearts and souls of its citizens, infecting everything it touches. But it also suggests an antidote in the unlikely figure of Wiesler himself, the true believer who begins to see everything in a new light. His enlightenment, however, comes at a steep price.