At once sad and thrilling, The Lives of Others is set in 1984, that Orwellian annus mirabilis. It's also set in the former German Democratic Republic, where Big Brother didn't just watch you, he tapped your phone, followed you around and recruited your friends, relatives and neighbors to report anything suspicious you might say or do. Out of a country of 17 million people, the Ministry of State Security, a.k.a. Stasi, employed 100,000 full-time case officers. Another 200,000 or so East German citizens served as informants. Friends spied on friends. Wives spied on husbands. Children spied on their parents. Everybody spied on everybody. And you have to wonder what it must have felt like to live under such stifling scrutiny. Was it possible to breathe?
Written and directed by the delightfully named Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others suggests that it was possible, albeit barely. Zeroing in on a single case and a single case officer, von Donnersmarck introduces us to Gerd Weisler, a Stasi agent who isn't quite a robot but isn't quite human either. The actor who plays him, Ulrich Mühe, has a face so nondescript you have trouble summoning it up later. Or is that a testament to Mühe's performance, his ability to disappear right before our eyes? When the movie opens, Weisler is teaching a class in interrogation techniques, and when a student asks whether such harsh methods are necessary, the teacher, without a trace of emotion, marks a tiny "x" next to the student's name.
Soon, he's given a field assignment. Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), one of the country's leading playwrights, has never done anything to arouse the government's suspicion, which arouses the government's suspicion. Plus, the pig-eyed Ministry of Culture (Thomas Thieme) has his eye on Dreyman's girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), one of the country's leading actresses. While Georg and Christa are out of the apartment one day, a team of Stasi agents bugs every square inch of the place. Meanwhile, Weisler sets up shop in the attic, one floor above. But a curious thing happens as he eavesdrops on Georg and Christa. He starts to identify with them, see things their way, even becomes rather protective of them, like an older sibling.
Von Donnersmarck doesn't dwell on the Hitchcockian voyeurism that's in play, the complicity we feel as audience members, since we're eavesdropping on everybody as well. Instead, he seems more interested in that old theme of art soothing the savage beast. Weisler - and, by implication, the GDR - might not have had to live off the lives of others if he'd had one of his own. We're taken to his apartment, which has the decorative flair of a dentist's office, and it doesn't surprise us when a prostitute shows up, does her business and is back out the door before Weisler can get his clothes all the way off. The Lives of Others has a lot of plot twists and enough codas to take in the fall of the wall and beyond. But what it excels at is showing us the stultifying stasis of life lived under a million microscopes.
Big Brother is you, watching.