Normally, I am suspicious of Oscar-winning foreign language films. Accentuated by their exoticness, their subject matter is rewarded for its ability to connect with the voters of the Academy more than its inherent craft. But I was blown away by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's terrific political thriller about socialist corruption in pre-cold war DDR - Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) which scooped up this year's prize for best film.
Gerd Wiesler works for the Stasi, the East German Secret Police. As played by Ulrich Mühe, he is a measured man, brilliant at his craft - surveillance and interrogation - a product of the regime loyal to a fault. As a captain in the Secret Police, he hunts down dissenters - anyone who shows even the slightest modicum of disrespect to the regime - even if only in a joke.
Early on he is asked to wire tap and shadow Georg Dreyman, a theater writer and his girlfriend, an actress called Christa-Maria Sieland - both of whom cloak their distrust of the State with care. But the reasons for the surveillance are a bit different this time. A corrupt minister is in love with Christa-Maria and wants to indite Dreyman and get him out his way.
Georg Dreyman is played as a warm, large-hearted man by Sebastian Koch whose loyalty for those close to him mirrors that of Wiesler's for his State. And it is the death of someone close to him that triggers Dreyman's frustration with those in power. The setting is thus ripe for his fall.
Only something curious has happened to his voyeur Wiesler which now complicates things. While consuming Dreyman's life through microphone and a surveillance camera, Wiesler's inner sense of fairness has begun to challenge his loyalty for the State.
You could praise Donnersmarck's direction, but the hard work here has been done by the script (which he also wrote). Perhaps fittingly, since this movie revolves around writers and their innate power to change their environment. The plot is dense enough, but Donnersmarck stages it with such unhurried confidence that the movie feels paced comfortably even when its covering a lot of ground.
Koch plays his character with a twinkle-eyed warmth that never descends into cockiness. The way he plays Dreyman makes it easy to believe how his plight could seduce even the hardest of hearts.
Mühe has the tougher role to play - primarily because his character is a repressed man. He gives Wiesler a steadied expression - his blankness only occasionally relieved by a sadness or fleeting glint in his eyes. Thus, when it is time to show the longing inside him which eventually results in his transformation, Mühe surprises you with his minimalist ability to convey the emotion of his character.
The movie is full of excellent performances. Martina Gedeck, as Dreyman's conflicted girlfriend, is particularly stellar.
But the magic here belongs to Von Donnersmarck. Just about everything he tries works - only one or two scenes feel slightly clumsy. Instead of taking stale potshots at socialism, he is careful about making his movie one about corruption brought about by unquestioned power. Von Donnersmarck also weaves in history to frame his story - but he does this organically, thus ensuring his movie doesn't appear self-aggrandizing.
By keeping his movie focussed on his characters and their lives, Von Donnersmarck gives us an extreme close-up of the society that housed them in the mid-eighties.