The life of the theater gives The Lives of Others its spark, verve and profundity. Even fans of Pan's Labyrinth (like me) may leave thinking this movie deserved its best foreign-language film Oscar.
This excitingly thoughtful suspense film takes place in 1984, in an East Germany that plagiarizes Orwell's 1984.
The secret police, or Stasi, rule a network of agents and informers that puts the whole state on the wire.
It's difficult even for the country's leading playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), and his lover and star, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), to act like lead characters in their own existence.
Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), a Stasi expert in surveillance and interrogation, leaps at the chance to bug their apartment. He can't comprehend that an artist like Dreyman believes in forgiving the state's excesses and nudging it toward reform. Wiesler is certain he can nail Dreyman as a secret subversive.
Yet as he eavesdrops on Dreyman and Sieland with his reel-to-reel recorder, he gets drawn into their thoughts and feelings, which are as bohemian as they can get in the German Democratic Republic. This sawed-off shotgun of a man goes so far as to filch a book from Dreyman so he can savor a love passage from Brecht.
He grows to realize that truth-telling is part of the theatrical profession - and that lying in the pursuit of truth is part of it, too. In a stunning series of sardonic and moving moments, he cares covertly for others in spite or because of their weaknesses.
The unique, serious fun of this movie - and forbidding reputation aside, it is exhilarating - lies in the way that Wiesler, Dreyman and Sieland end up collaborating unknowingly on their own Design for Living (for a while, it's like Noel Coward for moral cowards). These two guys and a gal maintain an uneasy equilibrium as long as Wiesler's in charge of the case. When he loses control, all hell breaks loose.
In theatrical ploys from the soliloquies in Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude to the mumblings of Kevin Nealon's Mr. Subliminal on Saturday Night Live, the payoff derives from the distance between what's said among the characters and what's said directly to the audience. Thanks to this movie's distinctive corkscrew wit, Dreyman and Sieland speak to Wiesler and of course to us without knowing it. Their honesty is as bracing as any virtuoso flimflammery.
The Lives of Others is many things: a nightmare about a pseudo-civilization without liberty, a cautionary tale about a society that chokes off its own intellectual and emotional vitality, and a hard guy's sentimental education. What keeps it simmering is a coiling series of plays-within-a-play.
Wiesler discovers that a government minister (Thomas Thieme) has coerced Sieland into sex and authorized this fishing expedition to have her all to himself. Our domestic master-spy swiftly loses his vocational certainty. At the same time, personal disasters open Dreyman's eyes to the scope of East German tyranny. He decides to write an article fiercely critical of the GDR. With his colleagues, he struggles to create a surface drama to conceal their attempt to smuggle it into the West, without having it traced back home.
Wiesler realizes by now that the state operates on anyone with a moral or aesthetic conscience like the worst theatrical producer and censor rolled into one.
Still, when Dreyman turns political iconoclast, what's a trained weasel like Wiesler to do?
In his feature debut, the brilliant writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck takes a super-bureaucrat's crisis of conscience and turns it into a spider-and-fly thriller that's also a tense meditation on what the life and work of an artist can bequeath to an art-hater like Wiesler.
This Stasi agent lives in a smudge-free flat, eats food fit for an orbiting astronaut and has sex with a not-so-happy, supremely punctual prostitute. He dresses in a bad imitation of Western leisure-wear - a Party Members Only jacket - and keeps an emotional distance from everybody.
But Dreyman's nature as a public artist who tolerates failure, admits errors and believes in social evolution attracts his eavesdropper like forbidden fruit. And without knowing it, Sieland teaches Wiesler about the unbearable heaviness of being - and the unbearable poignancy of flawed beauty. She finds relief from pressure with illegal drugs. More than one man tries to protect her.
The movie contains numerous elements of Cold War genre films: a secret compartment, spies vs. spies vs. spies, a typewriter that can't be traced. But von Donnersmarck rivets our attention to Wiesler's forebrain. Muhe's performance ranks with Robert Duvall's in the first two Godfather films as an apex of quiet cunning mixed with empathy. And Gedeck, with her bruised voluptuousness, brings Sieland the eerie quality of being haunted even in her prime.
Yet Koch gives the performance of the movie. Dreyman starts out as a glass-half-full kind of guy who uses his intelligence and affability to shield himself, subtly, from despair or confusion. Koch convinces us that suffering deepens him. In the end, he becomes a sort of sleuth himself: a benign mirror-image to Wiesler.
The whole trajectory of The Lives of Others is toward more intimate revelations, more personal art. It's no accident that Dreyman's next major work, after his article, isn't a play, but a book. But at the end, that won't stop you from wanting to rise to your feet and shout "Bravo!"