Movies about spies are by necessity clammy, covert affairs, and "The Lives of Others" is no exception. Set in East Germany in 1984, five years before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it's about the machinations of the Stasi, the East German secret police that employed 100,000 and had twice that number acting as informants.
Stasi Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muehe) is at first presented as the ultimate company man. A human lie detector, he wears down a suspect in detention with his ice-cold methodology and laser eyes.
Wiesler believes that no one is above suspicion, and his latest target is Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a playwright who is regaled as "our only nonsubversive writer who is read in the West." Dreyman is seemingly loyal to the communist cause but Wiesler simply can't believe he's clean. So he decides to investigate Dreyman by wiring his apartment and monitoring every whisper.
He has an added motive: Culture Minister Hempf (Thomas Thieme) is hot for Dreyman's live-in girlfriend Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck), a leading stage actress, and wants the playwright out of the way.
What makes "The Lives of Others" more than just an elaborate secret police procedural is the way its writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck – what a mouthful of a monicker! – allows us to see Wiesler as a human being and not as a wiretap. Hidden in his espionage chamber with earphones clapped to his head, Wiesler may seem robotic, but over time he realizes that it is he and not Dreyman who is perpetrating an injustice.
Von Donnersmarck isn't the most elegant storyteller and, at 137 minutes, the film is overlong. The plot is just short of formulaic, and it has at least three endings – although the final one is so touching that it makes you forget the others.
But he captures the omnipresent paranoia that is built into his story. Particularly horrific is a scene in a Stasi commissary where a young staffer makes an innocent joke about East German leader Erich Honecker. His superiors overhear it, and suddenly the temperature in the room drops to subarctic levels.
The director is also fortunate to have cast actors who fully embody their roles. Muehe, who once played Josef Mengele in Costa-Gavras's "Amen," has the ability to let you see far beneath his masklike countenance. Koch, dashing and intense, is entirely believable as a man of the theater; Gedeck exudes a sensuousness that this covert society cannot abide.
The film is nominated for this year's best foreign film Oscar. Grade: B+
• Rated R for some sexuality and nudity.