The Lives of Others takes place in East Berlin, 1984, with glasnost a distant dream, a city dominated by the Stasi, the government secret police/intelligence organization which kept close tabs on the entire population. Devoted Stasi member Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is bent on uncovering the subversive activities of playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), not an easy task as Dreyman seemingly supports East Germany's socialism and comports himself at all times with utmost tact. However, pressure is brought to bear upon Wiesler by odious Stasi minister Hempf (Thomas Thieme), who is deeply attracted to Dreyman's lover, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). As Wiesler is forced to wiretap and shadow Dreyman, he gradually warms to the man, and this, more than anything else, provides the film's powerfully concentrated suspense.

Writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck makes a strikingly impressive film debut with this political thriller, depicting the pervasive dread of life under the Stasi, where anyone's apartment can be bugged and your neighbor may be an informer. The Museum of Modern Art recently featured an exhibit, "Stasi City" (by Jane and Louise Wilson), which projected, on four walls, footage shot in 1997 in the abandoned East German headquarters, and von Donnersmarck's film chillingly populates these same rooms. The horrors of Nazism have been replaced by Communist repression, and artistic freedom for people like Dreyman, or his old stage-director friend Albert Jerski (Volkmar Kleinert)--who is driven to suicide--is non-existent. Even within Stasi walls, no one is safe, for a mere offhand lunchtime joke overheard by the wrong person can have dire consequences, as in a nervous scene with Wiesler, Hempf and a table full of initially jocose then terrified employees. (One is reminded of Lubitsch's hilarious To Be or Not to Be, but there's decidedly nothing funny here.) The film becomes ever more gripping as it develops, until its explosively tragic climax, with a surprise, hauntingly resonant final dramatic payoff.

Von Donnersmarck elicits magnificent work from his entire cast. Mühe gives a beautiful performance as a "little grey company man" with no discernible life, conveying Wiesler's gradual humanism with intensity and yet a subtlety devoid of grandstanding, the stuff of the best, classic psychological drama. Handsome Koch accurately renders Dreyman's magisterially easy egotism as a cultural eminence enjoying his privileges, as well as his inner turmoil about his true beliefs and lost friends. Gedeck has a tough but poignant world-weariness which evokes such former glories of German cinema as Hildegarde Knef and Romy Schneider. Thieme has the bluster and bulk of the late Gert Froebe, which is entirely appropriate to his villainous role. Also recalling great German actors of the past like Felix Bressart and Albert Basserman who played similar victimized parts, Kleinert manages to be heartbreaking in a handful of scenes.