It may be arguably true that, in Jean-Paul Sartre's words, "hell is other people," but what "The Lives of Others" brilliantly proves is that drama fits exactly the same definition.
A potent narrative about the transformative effect of involvement in other people's stories, "Lives" turns its own story into a python-tight embrace of nuanced tension and emotional connection. It convincingly demonstrates that when done right, moral and political quandaries can be the most intensely dramatic dilemmas of all.
In Los Angeles for a one-week award-qualifying run before a February release, this German film, a likely foreign-language Oscar nominee, comes to town laden with deserved honors: six nominations in the European Film Awards and seven Lolas, the German version of the Oscars, including best picture, director and screenwriter for first-time filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.
Von Donnersmarck has set his film in the East Germany of 1984, five years before the Berlin Wall collapsed. It was a time when the terrifying Stasi, the secret police, made it their business to use an extensive network of spies and surveillance to know every secret thing about their citizens.
Unlike other German films, most notably 2004's landmark "Goodbye, Lenin," "Lives" is hardly an exercise in what's called "Ostalgia": nostalgia for the good old days of the East. Instead it is an inside look at how a surveillance society, set up to discover and prey upon human weakness, has the ability to make everyone a potential suspect and destroy everything it touches.
"The Lives of Others" does all this beautifully, but it is too well-acted a film, too meticulously plotted and carefully directed, to be satisfied with that alone. It's also finally too smart to be content with telling anything like a familiar story. Instead it places its key characters in high-stakes predicaments where what they are forced to wager is their talent, their very lives, even their souls.
Introduced first is Stasi Capt. Gerd Wiesler, someone we recognize, or think we do, as one of the worst of the worst, a soulless servant of the state shown both interrogating an overmatched prisoner and passing on his manipulative techniques to the next generation of secret police.
Immaculately played by Ulriche Muhe (winner of the best actor Lola), Wiesler is a humorless automaton, a Jesuitical ascetic with cold eyes and an unswerving true believer's faith in the system he has sworn to defend against "enemies of socialism" no matter where he finds them.
Wiesler's former classmate, Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), has the opposite temperament. Very much of a schmoozer and political animal, hence his more senior position as head of the Culture Department, Grubitz takes Wiesler along with him for a night at the theater where they meet a powerful minister, Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme).
This is not any ordinary night. It is the premiere of a new play by Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), one of the country's top playwrights, a play starring his beautiful mistress and the queen of the East German stage, Christa-Maria Sieland ("Mostly Martha's" Martina Gedeck).
It should be a night of triumph, but Minister Hempf is not happy. He tells Grubitz there might be reason to suspect playwright Dreyman's loyalty to the regime, and Grubitz puts his good friend Wiesler, the Zen master of surveillance techniques, a man who wouldn't hesitate to wiretap his own mother, on the job.
With Wiesler dispassionately listening in, we get to know the playwright and his actress better, get to see their worries about being able to do meaningful work in a restrictive society. Dreyman is especially concerned with the plight of his former director, Albert Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert), blacklisted by the government and prevented from working for going on seven years.
When you wiretap as conscientiously as Wiesler, you learn all sorts of things, perhaps even things you weren't supposed to know. Wiesler gathers information that hints at unsuspected motives behind the wiretapping. Also, in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome scenario, he comes to increasingly empathize with the couple he spends so much time eavesdropping on, leading to complex and shattering results.
As "The Lives of Others' " intricate plot unfolds and the acting takes hold in the most vivid way, as the line between survival and self-destruction becomes hard to see, the story's protagonists play increasingly dangerous double and triple games with each other.
Gradually, the film's interlinked character studies reveal a dizzying, high-tension society rife with jealousy, idealism and betrayal, intensified by the fatal corruption of the system. To create such a subtle yet gripping world, a world where the difference between meaningful action and senseless heroics is anyone's guess, is an accomplishment worthy of all those awards, and more.
MPAA rating: R for some sexuality/nudity. Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes. Exclusively at AMC Century City, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City.