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'Lives of Others' a remarkable film

"Lives of Others" won this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Film and it's easy to see why. This is a remarkable film

Set in East Berlin, in 1984, when the Stalinist German Democratic Republic used the mailed fist of the Stasi Secret Police to control all aspects of society: every citizen's loyalty to the Republic was open to question, and without warrant or habeas corpus, anyone could vanish into an urban gulag of prisons and interrogation rooms.

"Lives of Others" examines the lives of two men, Georg Dreyma (Sebastian Koch), a talented playwright, and Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), a Stasi officer. Ordered to surveil Dreyma, Wiesler sets about his task with the all the zealotry of one who is willing to do the bidding of the state without thought or hesitation. As we see, Wiesler is the perfect instrument of the state. His personal life has been purged of all that is personal, his apartment building a nondescript concrete high-rise, his apartment, like Wiesler himself, monochromatic, and absent anything extraneous.

In this tightly rendered narrative we watch as Wiesler, who has had Dreyma's apartment bugged with microphones and small cameras, is slowly drawn into the life of Dreyma. He is so intrigued by the writer's world, by his famous actress and live-in companion, Christa-Marie Sieland, by his friends, that he finds himself one afternoon walking slowly through the rooms of Dreyma's home, moved by the richness of the disorder: books and papers scattered everywhere, paintings on the wall, and color. Lots of color. What he is doing is walking through the man's life, letting his hand linger on the fabric of the furniture, pass over the papers spread on a desk, and, in the end, taking a book by Bertolt Brecht.

For Wiesler, the contrasts to his own life prove unsettling and so begins a subtle transformation that will have a series of unintended consequences for himself and for those he has been surveilling. It is at this point the film takes a dramatic turn and the tension, which has been ever so subtle, is heightened.

Wiesler becomes aware that Dreyma and his friends are planning to publish a treatise in the West which will be damning to the GDR. He is faced with a dilemma of equal proportion to the one that Dreyma is faced with by writing the piece. Should the men remain silent? Silence for both of them is a type of betrayal: for Dreyma, to not speak out against a system that is savage in its sustenance of power and control is a compromise that is increasingly bitter; for Wiesler, not to expose Dreyma would be to deny who he and undermine the state that he has so reflexively served all of his adult life. This is the essence of the burden of free will.

The great irony, nay tragedy, inherent in governments such as the GDR is that in order to enforce the well-publicized ideals of the state (a democratic republic), they must violate them. The rationalization is both lethal and elegant, a malignant contradiction and the height of Orwellian doublespeak. In one scene, a Stasi officer is explaining to Wiesler how their department is perfecting a system of "arrest and hold" that so terrifies artists and writers that the end result is that many are never able to work again. The thought of a society undisturbed by such disruptive people has endless appeal and the officer smiles in chilling satisfaction. It is only Wiesler who, sitting across the desk, has come to understand what will be lost.

In the end, the power of this film is in the contrasts between the men who represent the state and those who struggle to nurture the small remnants of humanity that the government would eliminate. The actors in "Lives of Others" do a superb job of making those differences come alive, delivering powerful and exceptional performances in this wonderfully constructed morality play.