Big Brother is listening, in a gripping thriller set in 1980s East Germany, writes Michael Dwyer
FRANCIS Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974), one of the finest films to emerge from the cycle of paranoia-steeped US thrillers in the post-Watergate era, starred Gene Hackman in a memorable portrayal of a wire-tapper who undergoes a crisis of conscience.
Hackman's Harry Caul has a good deal in common with Gerd Wiesler, an East German surveillance expert and the protagonist in The Lives of Others. Both men are scrupulously precise about their work, being paid to prey on the lives of others and to collect information on them. Neither has a life of his own. Their work is their lives, and each of them leads a lonely existence in an anonymous apartment. Caul has a distant relationship with a woman he sees for functional sex, while Wiesler hires a prostitute who keeps her eye on the clock.
Florian Henckel von Donners- marck, the writer-director of The Lives of Others, was born in 1973. His parents came from East Germany, where he travelled with them regularly to visit their friends and relatives. His riveting film is set in East Berlin in 1984 - the Orwellian reference is surely deliberate - when, an opening caption notes, "glasnost was nowhere in sight".
Wiesler (played by Ulrich Mühe) is introduced as a Stasi officer utterly dedicated to his position at the department of state security. In an early sequence, Wiesler succinctly demonstrates his skills for collecting evidence against suspected miscreants in an illustrated lecture on interrogation tactics.
When a venal minister assigns him to investigate a respected playwright (Sebastian Koch)
and his actress lover (Martina Gedeck), Wiesler approaches his task with characteristic diligence, becoming obsessed with the subjects of his meticulous surveillance operation.
Eschewing histrionics and heavyhanded hindsight, this tightly wound and quietly powerful film is a riposte to the sharp comic satire of Good Bye Lenin! It firmly establishes the dark, serious flipside of that story: the gruelling repression of those years before the Berlin Wall came down, when state informers abounded, nobody could trust anybody else, and personal freedom was barely a notional aspiration.
Both a gripping thriller and a salutary reflection on how absolute power corrupts, The Lives of Others chillingly captures an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. The actors are exemplary, with Koch and Gedeck seizing on much meatier roles than they had recently in Paul Verhoeven's Black Book and Robert De Niro's The Good Shepherd, respectively.
As the coldly impassive Wiesler, Mühe is hypnotic from his first scene all the way to the movie's unexpected resolution. A versatile actor who starred in three films directed by Michael Haneke and played Dr Mengele in Costa-Gavras's Amen, Mühe only discovered after the wall came down that he, too, had been the subject of Stasi surveillance in the 1980s - and that his then wife was the informer who spied on him.
The Lives of Others represents a remarkably mature work from a film-maker as young as von Donnersmarck, who is now 33, and all the more so given that this is his first feature film.
It is equally surprising that the movie was rejected by the Berlin and Cannes festivals last year, before going on to achieve critical and commercial success in Germany and to win the Oscar for best foreign-language film earlier this year.