Spying on a society’s ills

OSCAR voters, perhaps with an eye on recent abuses by authoritarian nation-states, bestowed the statuette for foreign language film on “The Lives of Others,” a disturbing saga of secrets and lies in the former communist East Germany.

Appropriately set in the Orwellian year of 1984, five years before the Berlin Wall fell, the movie by first-time feature director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck examines how individuals must struggle to act morally -- or not -- within political systems that stamp out free will.

Leavened with dark, absurdist humor over the built-in contradictions of the East German regime, the movie explores the shifting dynamic between an apparently soulless Stasi secret police officer and the objects of his clandestine surveillance: a dashing playwright, who may be a stealth dissident, and his actress girlfriend.

The movie played well in Europe and particularly in Germany, where it won a record seven German Film Awards (including best film, director and screenplay). Henckel von Donnersmarck wrote the first draft four years ago at age 29 while living in a monk’s cell in the Austrian woods. The script’s high quality attracted some of Germany’s top actors, including Ulrich Muhe, Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck.


For months, Henckel von Donnersmarck defied pressures to trim the film, which clocked in at 2 hours and 17 minutes, until it was picked up for distribution by Buena Vista International and Sony Pictures Classics. The last time a German film won the award was when “Nowhere in Africa” won in 2003.

-- Reed Johnson