A moral desperation sets in during the final days of a totalitarian government, and East Germany was a perfect example. The collapsing communist regime subjected its citizens to capricious and brutal policies, using its East German Secret police (the Stasi) for surveillance, intimidation and torture.
It's during these final years before Glasnost that Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's impressive feature-length debut, The Lives of Others, takes place. Beating out Pan's Labyrinth for the Best Foreign Language Oscar (a questionable decision), this grave and insightful examination of compassion and oppression is surprisingly moving.
Constructed as a thriller, this political drama follows Agent Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), a Stasi agent whose humanity has been hollowed out by his work. A dutiful servant of the state, he ruthlessly and dispassionately threatens suspects and their families to get what he needs. Assigned to bug the apartment of celebrated and politically loyal playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his beautiful actress girlfriend, Christa (Martina Gedeck), Wiesler scrupulously sets about monitoring Georg's every conversation, meeting and activity. He's looking for anything that might be considered a crime against the state.
Over time, however, the Stasi agent finds himself struggling to maintain his distance. Years of state-sanctioned immorality have filled him with self-loathing and he becomes increasingly drawn into the young couple's imperfect love for one another. When he learns that the operation is at the behest of a party official who lusts after Christa, Wiesler is disturbed by the abuse of power and is driven to act. The first time in his life he accepts responsibility for his subjects' fate.
Much like Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation, von Donnersmarck's thriller does a terrific job of balancing political paranoia with budding humanity. As Wiesler begins to question the system of secrecy and coercion he has devoted his life to, his increasingly risky actions have unintended consequences. It's a testament to von Donnersmarck's writing that his characters are believably three-dimensional and the tightly plotted story zigs just when you think it's going to zag.
But as good as The Lives of Others is, it's not flawless. Von Donnersmarck's direction is stolid. He has none of Coppola's virtuosity. Worse, the film's myriad false endings give way to unneeded sentimentality. After being run through an emotional and narrative wringer, his feel-good conclusion doesn't quite sit right.
Where The Lives of Others transcends its shortcomings is its testament to the resilience of compassion, and von Donnersmarck's message is that no system is so strong that it can rob us of our humanity or yearning for love. If that's not a sentiment to honor, nothing is.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111). German with English subtitles.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].