Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), a member of the East German secret police the Stasi leads a class of recruits at the beginning of "The Lives of Others" ("Das Leben der Anderen"), a look at life behind the wall during the 1980s.
You know someone is guilty the more he sticks to the same story, the thin-haired, diminutive man assures the class. Such logic shrinks the heart a little, especially knowing that the story, or at least its basic premise, is real: how people hid in cellars and attics, set up wiretaps and took down notes, all to make sure their fellow citizens conformed to a vague ideal that lasted less than 50 years.
"Lives" reminds us that in 1984, however, glasnost is nowhere in sight. Wiesler's eyes glow with righteousness when he is assigned to Operation Lazlo, a spy mission to see what Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), East Germany's most reverently patriotic playwright, is really up to.
Most of the movie is an ultrarealistic re-creation of life under a police state, filled with subtle observation that wouldn't be possible in a standard potboiler. Wiesler and his cronies, who tend to cause revulsion most of the time, appear almost innocent at times, like simple children playing with fancy, powerful toys, ignorant of the damage they cause. But the movie's most brilliant maneuver is to show how change is possible, at least for some men like Wiesler. He learns, little by little, under the influence of his victims, even as they change, too.
"The Lives of Others" has hope, but it is a disheartening movie. Reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation," it achieves suspense without its main character even knowing he's in danger. There's no need for a pounding soundtrack. The film should be all the more intriguing to American audiences because the bad guys aren't evil in a conventional sense. In their own deluded minds, the bureaucrats tend to think they are doing good. Morbid humor is all that's left to enjoy. As Dreyman muses near the end, to think men like that once ran a country! It's a chilling notion we have been forced to consider thoroughly long before the end credits roll. (R) 137 min. ***** S