George Orwell foretold the spiritual and political morass that results from Communism gone rotten in 1984. East Germans lived it in 1984, when Big Brother more concretely, the Stasi, the country's relentless secret police was, in point of fact, watching everyone in the Communist German Democratic Republic. The utterly riveting fictional drama The Lives of Others re-creates that dismayingly recent era of paranoia and privation without an ounce of the nostalgia popular in recent, wry, post-ironic movie escapes like 2004's Good Bye, Lenin! In the East Berlin created by notably self-assured 33-year-old writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, everyone has reason to look over his shoulder, especially with a Stasi officer like Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe, perfecting an X-ray stare) on the job. An unwavering believer in his country's political philosophy and the need for vigilance to enforce those ''ideals,'' Wiesler prides himself on his ability to expose even the smallest chinks in the armor of citizen compliance. He is a colorless nowhere man to the bone, the ultimate company tool. Yet Mühe finds a mesmerizing way to make a substantive, thinking individual out of what might have been a shadowy villain.
Brought to the theater by a colleague to see the latest play by Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a successful, model ''nonsubversive'' artist with a respectful following in the West, the Stasi man is convinced he can find the wrong behind the playwright's apparent veneer of right. And so, having thoroughly bugged Dreyman's apartment, he sets up his listening post on a floor above to begin spying on (and interfering with) lives of others that are as humanly fluid, inconsistent, and unpredictable as his is rigid.
The filmmaker's control of story and pacing is so wily, his script so literate (in his feature debut, no less), that to reveal much more would interfere with the thrill of the tentacled plot's twists. Let's just say that Wiesler discovers early on that Dreyman's lover and theatrical leading lady (Martina Gedeck) is the pet of a powerful culture minister and ex–Stasi officer. Some of the movie's tensest moments take place with the most minimal of action Wiesler simply listening through headphones, Dreyman simply lying on his bed, a neighbor simply looking through a door peephole, her whole life contingent on what she does about what she sees. In those nerve-racking pauses (handled by a strong, understated cast), von Donnersmarck conveys everything he wants us to know about choice, fear, doubt, cowardice, and heroism.
The Lives of Others (a deserving Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film) is, at heart, a thriller, and thrillers depend on turns of event that are inevitably artificial. No one is likely to confuse this Stasi man's story with ''reality.'' But no one can doubt the veracity of the human unpredictability the movie captures, either. A-