Beloved in its homeland --and recent winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar -- The Lives of Others is the first feature by 33-year-old writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose studies at Oxford in philosophy, political science, and economics must have come in handy for this material. Cleverly reflexive, the movie gathers extra layers by making its police-state victim a dramatist and by suggesting that occupational spying might have been something like having a front-row seat at every performance. Encouraged by his bosses, Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) trains his steely blue eyes on Georg Dreyman's latest play and sees an enemy of the state.
Mühe, previously indelible as the besieged patriarch in Michael Haneke's home-invasion thriller Funny Games, here lends his translucent skin and hollowed-out facial features to the role of a man who clearly needs to get out more. Wiesler seems to suspect anyone who has more of a life than he has -- and that is virtually everyone.
Has von Donnersmarck whitewashed the Stasi by giving Wiesler the faint hint of a heart? If the young director commits a crime, it's in pushing the character's rehabilitation a teardrop too far.