American viewers may be more familiar with The Lives of Others as the film that upset Pan's Labyrinth for the 2006 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar than they are from having seen it themselves. But those who did see it understood full well why this German sociopolitical drama deserved every honor a body of voters might bestow it. While most of the memorable "Big Brother is watching" films have dealt with future dystopias, rookie writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck finds plenty of this justified paranoia in his own country's recent history. For Westerners, it's a truly chilling view into East Germany as controlled by the Communists and policed by the Stasi during the 1980s. But The Lives of Others is no clinical look into German history -- it's an involving character study full of difficult choices and suspenseful moments, and it plays out to an extremely satisfying conclusion.
All the performances are effective, but this is Ulrich Mühe's film -- an amazing statement given his even, quiet performance. A true believer in the twin weapons of intensive surveillance and emotional torture, who teaches students to perfect these very principles, Mühe's Gerd Wiesler pursues his job with a dogmatic fervor that's concentrated into near wordlessness. It's a real measure of his capabilities as an actor, then, that he takes the viewer on such a profound arc toward enlightenment, remarkable in its subtlety. The title may be a bit inexact -- "The Political Philosophies of Others" might have cut closer to how Wiesler is affected by the playwright and his girlfriend. But how to employ his newfound ideas, when similar zealots are monitoring his own protocols for any chinks in his resolve? The Lives of Others is an equal joy to watch aesthetically, shot expertly by Hagen Bogdanski and dressed with an artful drabness by production designer Silke Buhr. And with its thematic parallels to the Bush administration's domestic wire-tapping policies, it crackles with immediacy.