The idea of government surveillance is nothing new, in both reality and fiction. From George Orwell to James Bond, and from the Stasi to the NSA, the boundaries of what a government can monitor within its people will always be redrawn and debated. Film has also tried to bring this cloak and dagger kind of work into the light of day. None do it better than Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck in his feature length debut The Lives of Others.
The story begins in the winter of 1984, where Hauptmann Gard Weisler (Ulrich Mühe) is tasked to watch and set up full surveillance of playwright Gerog Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). Weisler is suspicious of Dreyman, despite him being a very public supporter of East Germany and Socialism in general. The set up of the operation begins right away, but soon Weisler learns the true motives behind the surveillance, it is in the hopes that the Minister of Culture Bruno Hempf can find something to arrest Dreyman on so he can move in and spark a relationship with Dreyman's girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Horrified and deeply offended, Weisler puts a plan into motion to expose the tryst, watch Dreyman and get the state back for such misappropriation of resources.
The performances of The Lives of Others are deep and nuanced. They really do stay with you and a viewer can easily find themselves caring for these characters. The performances of the protagonists, from Mühe, Koch, and Gedeck, are the most notable. The three of them do great work as the watcher and the watched, who at the end of the day want the same thing, to escape or perfect a system that they see as a bastardization of their collective Socialist ideals.
von Donnersmarck's direction and script are both assured, meditative and riveting. The twists and turns of the story make sense and seem natural and organic. The story never gets too unbelievable and stays grounded. The story is always about people, not action scenes, and keeping it that way makes it better.
Even though it premiered 17 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall controversy surrounded this picture when it came out. Many Germans criticized the humanization of a Stasi Officer character, like Weisler and some controversy came about when it premiered in America, mostly stemming form the fact that the "good guys" were still devout Socialists. Despite these criticisms, The Lives of Others enjoyed effusive critical praise and was a smashing success in the worldwide box office. Also, all of the praise culminated in the film winning the Best Foreign Film Oscar at the 2006 Academy Awards.
Overall, this is a powerful film that shows the lives of people we as Westerners may not fully understand. We can study history, sure, but this film shows us how these people lived, how they loved, what they believed, and what they were willing to sacrifice for what they held dear. The Lives of Others is a powerful, riveting, film that all should see, it is truly a modern classic of world cinema and should not be missed.