The Lives of Others illuminates shadows of East Berlin's history

A fiercely intelligent and engaging story tracing East Berlin dramatist Georg Dreyman's rebellion against the Deutsche Deomokratische Republik (DDR) and how this ripples out, The Lives of Others is a cinematic triumph for first time director/writer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

What sets this film apart is the absence of binaries such as good and evil which tend to confine humanity. That is not to say Donnersmarck presents corrupted socialism in an ambivalent light - quite the opposite. The self-professed goal of the DDR to "know everything" exposes the grotesque obliteration of privacy and the consequent dissemination of human bonds.

The story begins when Stasi [secret police] agent Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), a loyal member of the state who is among the few true socialists, is appointed to monitor popular dramatist Dreyman around-the-clock. As he spends more time on his mission, Wiesler observes intimacies between the playwright and his enigmatic live-in girlfriend, actress Christa Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), psychologically involving himself with them. The plot gains momentum when Dreyman begins writing an article, the first concrete evidence of subversion, while a very appealing Sieland is exploited by corrupt and powerful Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), perhaps the only "bad-guy" in the film.

Sieland attracts the attention not only of nasty Hempf, but of Wiesler, whose developing tenderness for both his watches complicates his vocation. He must grapple with the immense pressure of Stasi duty and his natural responses to love, forming the most compelling line of the film. The extremely able and intelligent Wiesler covers his tracks but the Orwellian presence of tyrannical authority is an overwhelming force. Sieland and Dreyman choose love over personal security, but it is not so easy to conquer the power of the state as complications invariably present themselves.

Von Donnersmarck's vision of a dehumanized republic beautifully captures the natural cohesion between justice and love so horrifyingly stamped out by abuse of power. This movie must not be missed.