When Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck accepted his Oscar for best foreign-language film last month, he appeared to be 7 feet tall. Then again, the two presenters standing beside him may be extremely short. What is not in doubt: This young German writer-director's debut feature, The Lives of Others, has a stature that extends way beyond its relatively modest budget. Although the picture is essentially a spy thriller, it doesn't resort to car crashes or explosions to heighten tension.
Initially set in 1984, the story has profound Orwellian implications. But in this case, an apparatchik in a totalitarian regime doesn't fall in love with a person; he falls in love with the very idea of love. And glasnost will eliminate the Iron Curtain a few years later, so the East Berlin saga's characters aren't trapped in a dystopia with no exit. Of course, they don't know that yet.
Played with chillingly flat affect by Ulrich Muhe, Captain Gerd Wiesler is a veteran intelligence operative for the Stasi, East Germany's formidable secret police. He never seems to question the ideological basis for his work. However, his no-nonsense persona gives him a strange sort of integrity in contrast to calculating, corrupt government officials like Lieutenant Colonel Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) and Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme).
Assigned to uncover any potential subversive behavior by noted playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), the relentlessly punctual Wiesler deploys the efficient tools of his trade. He bugs the unwitting man's apartment, sets up surveillance equipment in the building's attic, and listens in on every conversation.
Georg is somewhat apolitical. To an eavesdropper, the really interesting activities taking place are intimacies with his girlfriend Christa-Maria (Martina Gedick), the German Democratic Republic's most acclaimed actress. Wiesler finds himself seduced by the poetry of their passion and the music he hears emanating from a piano. It's a classical piece by Gabriel Yared, the film's composer, titled "Sonata for a Good Man." Such symbolism is, thankfully, not heavy-handed.
Grubitz and Hempf, both of whom have hidden agendas, pressure Wiesler to pin something - anything! - on Georg. But the Stasi loyalist is caught in a moral dilemma he previously could not have imagined. Has the window on another world really changed him, or is his soul too damaged?
Muhe's wonderfully unreadable expression doesn't make it clear whether Wiesler will have the courage to defy tyranny. He might just cling to the familiarity of his own existence, which is as drab and empty as the streets of the city - at least, as they're depicted by Hagen Bogdanski's vivid cinematography.
Von Donnersmarck and his brilliantly understated cast allow all this complex exposition to unfold at an unhurried pace, helping to impart the inexorable sorrow in a society that cannot abide individuality. Artists are particularly suspect. Despair has become the national pastime.
With interrogation, torture and betrayal commonplace, paranoia is heart-poundingly palpable. For denizens of theater like Georg and the pill-popping Christa-Maria, loss of livelihood may be waiting in the wings.
Whether it's gulags in the old Soviet Bloc or poisoning dissidents in Vladimir Putin's new Russia, the power to arbitrarily punish perceived enemies of the state is always astonishing. Civil liberties and habeas corpus are endangered in many places around the globe, no matter what party line prevails.
The movie's intriguing thesis is that repression may be able to sap the humanity from ordinarily decent people, but sometimes the decent can instill humanity in those who do the repressing. Or so we hope.