To me, and this is just a personal thing, the worst aspect of totalitarianism is the destruction of human spirit, the elimination of liberty, the loss of humanity and the clouds of suspicion, doubt and fear that hang over all relationships. Again, that's just me.
The nice thing about The Lives of Others, the Academy Award-winning film from 6-foot-9-inch-tall writer/director Florian Maria Georg Christian Graf Henckel von Donnersmarck, is that it shows this without resorting to the sort of TV-movie histrionics that usually mark condemnations of what can only be described as pure, unadulterated evil.
Set in East Germany in the waning years of the Cold War (for our younger readers, the Cold War was a time when the United States existed in a desperate nuclear standoff with a country that we now know was actually run on glue, string and a propaganda department that made Walt Disney seem like a documentarian), the film details the fallout that occurs when high-ranking security Minister Bruno Hempf decides that he'd like Christa-Maria Sieland, girlfriend of famed playwright Georg Dreyman, to service his pants-proletariat.
Hempf instructs his secret police to do whatever is necessary to ruin Dreyman so that he can get the girl, win the day and live happily ever after in a communist paradise where the worker is free and people in power get to bang whomever they want without the interference of pesky artists.
So Stasi Col. Anton Grubitz, who likes his job more than he likes the ideals for which it is supposed to stand, agrees to help Hempf, and assigns Capt. Gerd Wiesler to spy on Dreyman, because in a bureaucracy, you never do anything yourself.
The problem is that Wiesler actually does believe in the socialist ideal, and that's why he's in the secret police. Abusing his power in order to help someone get laid seems a bit un-Marxist to him, and he begins to drift from his duties, creating a series of events that reverberate for the following decade.
It's a bit complex on paper, but on film, it all runs smoothly as Dreyman, a good friend of the wife of East Germany's president, and the only playwright who's not a dissident, is slowly driven to dissent by the relentless forces of the paranoid and corrupt regime.
There are at least a dozen reasons to recommend The Lives of Others, but there's one big minus against it: The second act is painfully drawn out. It's odd, because the final act is a masterpiece of minimalist filmmaking, covering nine years of time in less than a half hour, and including only the most important and forceful moments.
When the film swings into gear, it does so in a heart-wrenching and tremendously economical manner that will wring tears from the eyes of even the most heartless neo-Stalinist. (I'm looking at you, Mr. Cheney!)
You just have to get through the very lax midsection, wherein Dreyman spends a lot of time staring, wondering and being noncommittal about the cause of anti-evil.
Which is not to say that there's nothing to carry it through. Tragic touches abound, including a neighbor who wishes she could tell Dreyman he's being watched, but is paralyzed by fear; the suicide of Dreyman's best friend; and the strange sorrow of Stasi agent Wiesler as he witnesses something he's never seen before: a man who has friends, love, respect and happiness.
Wiesler is played by Ulrich Mühe, and he takes a fairly unbelievable character and gives him a horrifying emotional depth. As Wiesler watches Dreyman, he sees the kind of life he could never have, and he regrets the evil of the government that, at least in theory, he believes in.
While all the performances are top-notch, Sebastian Koch's turn as Dreyman will probably get the most notice, as his good looks and breadth of expression mark him as the next European actor to be wooed, feted and ultimately destroyed by Hollywood. I predict his suicide in 2010.
On the downside, the cinematography is like having sex with a German prostitute: utterly efficient but without any inherent excitement. And there's the meandering middle third ...
But it's actually all worth it, because the ending starts with a bang and gets more intense from there. Just buckle up and bear with it, because I don't think you'll see a film that's as moving and politically astute any time soon. Plus, Lives of Others is a good primer on why we should never allow the kind of concentration of power and secrecy that made the former Soviet Bloc such an appealing model to the Alberto Gonzaleses of the world.