The Lives of Others
When Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) attends the opening night of the new play by Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), he spends the evening training his opera glasses on the audience, not the stage. A captain in the Communist-era East German secret police, the Stasi, Wiesler embodies the organization's dreaded "gray men": nondescript, ruthless, an expert in interrogation, a true believer. Georg's work is approved of by the party and he's not considered a troublemaker, but in the German Democratic Republic of the mid-1980s, this makes him a bit too good to be true. Before the night is over, Wiesler is assigned to put Georg under full surveillance.
Wiesler plants bugs in Georg's apartment and takes up his listening post, and The Lives of Others appears set for a grim tour of the grinding realities of life in a Communist police state. Writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck certainly peppers the story with a host of small, effective moments that bring home the fear, paranoia, and systemized brutality the East Berliners live under. (In an early sequence, Wiesler cautions a class of future interrogators never to forget to keep the cloth covering the seat cushion their victims sit on--"an odor sample . . . for the dogs.") But as Wiesler spends more and more time watching over Georg and his actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck)--and as von Donnersmarck limns the sterile, lonely parameters of the captain's own state-run life--it becomes clear that the director's ambitions for the movie look beyond the existential art-house downer.
With his bulbous bald head, sunken cheeks, and limpid staring eyes, Mühe occasionally brings to mind Nosferatu's Max Schreck, a resemblance that works in von Donnersmarck's favor. After all, Wiesler is some kind of monster, colder than the fat, piggish bullies who are his superiors, but he is also, at some level, human. As Georg and Christa-Maria wrestle with their love and their consciences, and Georg finally breaks his apolitical stance; somehow something in Wiesler cracks open, too--which is not to say that The Lives of Others veers onto the typical Hollywood redemption route. Mühe is masterful in a performance built almost entirely of shades of deadpan, and von Donnersmarck deserves credit for a deft and steady hand. By the time The Lives of Others heads toward its final reels, it can boast of that rarest of movie qualities these days: suspense that never lets down the integrity of the characters or the ideas that have fueled it.