The year is 1984 and Captain Gerd Weisler (Ulrich Mühe) is an officer in the Stasi, the East German secret police. Here in Berlin, he carries out his investigations with ruthless efficiency, an expert in surveillance and psychological torture techniques, as he demonstrates today to his class of university students. He outlines his methods and how he can perceive whether one of his prisoners is telling the truth or not, which don't sound convincing to some of the students, yet he has great faith not only in his beliefs but the Communist Party he represents. However, what if something were to challenge those tenets he holds?
The Lives of Others, or Das Leben der Anderen as it was known in the original German, touched a sore point with many in Eastern Europe and particularly in the land where it was based, as the atrocities of the totalitarian government were still within living memory and those memories were not good ones. If there was one thing that the film did well it was to portray the climate of suspicion, where an innocent could be taken in by the Stasi on the flimsiest of charges and imprisoned, or you could be shopped by your neighbours who wished to avoid arrest themselves or simply bore some spurious grudge against you and were acting out of spite.
Whatever the reason, one day you could be living your blameless life, the next you could be subjected to terrifying interrogation and incarceration, sometimes without hope of seeing another human being for months, even years. For this reason, East Germans might not have wanted to be reminded of the days when paranoia was part of their existence, but writer and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck adopted a sensitive approach, offering the Weisler character a chance to redeem himself after a lifetime of intimidation and fear over his fellow citizens. Not that there is any pussyfooting around the harrowing effects of the regime, and this is all leading up to a personal tragedy.
You'd think that tragedy would be what affected those Weisler was spying on, but part of the point is how spending your hours noting down what the party you have been ordered to investigate brings you emotionally closer to your victim. Exactly how accurate this idea was considering the number of people in Communist Europe who were ruined by this kind of activity by the authorities is open to question, as it seems more likely that the power trip such delving into someone's existence brought far outweighed any regrets that the spy might have had, or not had, as is more likely, and there is a sequence where Weisler is listening in to his latest assignment and sheds a tear because of the beautiful music he is hearing. It's a turning point for the character, but hard to swallow.
That assignment is a self-satisfied playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), who has been placed under surveillance simply because the Minister for Culture fancies his actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Seiland (Martina Gedeck). She isn't interested, but has to suffer this creep's attentions or risk getting her boyfriend or herself into desperate trouble, and so the seeds are sown for the downfall of the three main players in this awful war of nerves. The ironic part of this is that Dreyman is a loyal follower of the party, yet his artistic leanings have generated mistrust about him as, the film implies, anyone with a measure of creativity will amongst those whose imagination only reaches as far as making up bogus reasons to take against generally harmless people. In truth, the film is stronger in the depressing results of these actions than it is with providing hope, despite the fall of the Berlin Wall around the corner as far as the setting goes, and its relentlessly drab mood and look makes for a hard-going, not entirely morally convincing, watch. Music by Stéphane Moucha and Gabriel Yared.