Below is my review from a few years ago...
Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) (2006)
Director: Ryan Fleck
Writers: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Producers: Alex Orlovsky, Jamie Patricof, Lynette Howell, Rosanne Korenberg, Anna Boden
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie, Monique Curnen, Karen Chilton, Tina Holmes, Collins Pennie
Regardless of the fact that it received the Oscar for Best Foreign Film instead of the slightly more deserving Pan's Labyrinth, The Lives of Others is nearly as good and certainly deserving of the wide attention it will now receive (it’s definitely a much better film than last year's winner, the slightly above average Tsotsi). Florian Henckel-Donnersmarck's first feature film, The Lives of Others delves into many captivating topics and genres ranging from thrilling government espionage and an ever evolving personal ethics and morals tale, to an exploration of the idea of the prostitution of art under a controlling government and the effect this has on the artist as well as the transformative ability of the arts in general and it’s role as the spark of change in an ever changing political world. How far will a writer, an actor, or a director go for his work? The film also delves into the greater picture: how far will someone, anyone go to do what is inherently right?
While slightly manipulative and sentimental in the vein of Spielberg's Schindler's List or his more recent Munich (a film that is tonally very similar), it's hard to fault such a poignant, enrapturing film. Taking place in East Germany during the years before 1989, The Lives of Others is about one man, a state surveillance expert, who slowly discovers he's on the wrong side politically and morally. This loyal employee of the state, Hauptmann G. Wiesler(Ulrich Mühe), is put in charge of surveillance of playwright Georg Dreyman and his longtime girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland as well as Dreyman’s apartment where many of the events of the film take place after the Minister of Culture of East Germany becomes interested romantically in Christa. Wiesler finds the life of the couple fascinating and, through the transformative power of the arts amongst other things, his cold and hardened heart is slowly warmed. A particular scene of sudden emotional power and clarity hits the viewer when Wiesler hears a specific piece of music played by Dreyman on his piano. It’s unadulterated moments like this that are too few and far between in cinema today.
The film pays homage to Coppola's 1974 surveillance filled The Conversation, at times even referring directly to the director’s little known masterpiece via its camera angles. The two films share many similarities including a lead character surveillance expert who goes through events causing a moral metamorphosis of sorts; Ulrich Mühe giving Gene Hackman a run for his money, generating one of the best performances I've seen all year. His Wiesler is right up there with such nuanced characters from this year as Gosling’s Dan Dunne (Half Nelson) and DiCaprio’s Danny Archer (Blood Diamond).
The film's main character, while given a name is otherwise known and remembered as HGW XX/7. What he does for others, selflessly and without remorse is what defines him. His name is not important and will most likely be forgotten rather quickly after he's gone. Through the course of the film he becomes what in Yiddish would be called a "mensch," someone so selfless and giving that they are rarely seen or heard of, never wanting any recognition of any kind. The transformation is one of subtle brilliance sneaking up on you to the point where it might seem false or contrived but in retrospect make perfect sense, eliciting such a wide range of emotions from the audience. This is of course no doubt due to the airtight screenplay, never wasting a second of celluloid or a single line of dialogue, as well as Ulrich Mühe's astonishing and subtle performance.The film's final frames are such severely heartbreaking scenes of pure and bittersweet joy; its final freeze frame shot reminded me of Truffaut’s ending shot from his respective debut film, the classic The 400 Blows. The two films, in their final closing seconds, share a very similar moment filled with both triumph and tragedy; in The Lives of Others, providing a deeply affecting moment I won’t soon forget.