One of the few surprises at the February 2007 Oscars was the award for best Foreign Film. Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth – which caused some upsets itself by winning three Oscars in art-related categories – was the clear front-runner in this category, but his sumptuous, gory fantasy got trounced by this quiet, low-budget drama from Germany about the East German secret police (the Stasi) in the years before the country's reunification.
After having seen both films, I think the Academy got it right: whereas Pan's Labyrinth employed disturbing imagery to distract from its script problems and one-dimensional characters, The Lives of Others relies on good old-fashioned storytelling, with strong actors portraying rich, complex characters.
Like Pan's Labyrinth, this film also succeeds at taking us to a time and a place that few of us know much about: in this case, East Berlin in 1984-85. The Berlin Wall would be torn down within five years, but at the time that seemed impossible. The Stasi were in complete control, the citizenry lived in fear of being informed upon, and all assumed that that was how it was going to be forever.
The particular story that The Lives of Others tells is of a lonely Stasi agent (the stoic Ulrich Mühe, perfectly cast) who is enlisted to spy upon a successful East German playwright, apparently because a Bureau Chief has the hots for the playwright's actress girlfriend and wants to discover some treasonous act to justify sending the playwright off to prison. When the Stasi agent discovers that the playwright is planning to publish something scandalous in the West, the plot thickens.
One of the strengths of The Lives of Others is its suggestion that much of the Stasi's power was purely psychological. These secret policemen aren't shown torturing or murdering the citizenry. Instead, by threatening to demote family members or keep them out of prestigious schools, and by rewarding informants with gift baskets, they appeal to the petty needs of ordinary people.
Beautifully shot on a small scale and well-acted by all, the film's only fault is that, at 2 hours and 17 minutes, it runs a little too long. Oh, and it also uses the same piece of music about twenty times. Writer/director Von Donnersmarck's budget may have been low, but he could have afforded to have a bit more scoring. Still, don't let any of that stop you from seeing this satisfying film.