Oh, to be in East Berlin now that spring is here: The buildings are gray, the birds are chirping, and the Stasi – the East German secret police – are looking into those buildings through binoculars and scanning those birds’ chirps for seditious intent. In von Donnersmarck’s extraordinary new film, The Lives of Others
, we’re dropped into a world that’s almost incomprehensible to those of us who’ve been lucky enough to live our lives free of government surveillance and interrogation rooms, a world where the Stasi once numbered nearly 100,000 employees and hundreds of thousands of informants, and individual thought was synonymous with criminality. Not even George Orwell could have come up with a place as horrible as communist Berlin. In 33-year-old von Donnersmarck’s debut feature, which also just received this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Film (feel free to start hating him now), the sense of dread and lifeless resignation is palpable, seeping out over the lives of everyone everywhere. That feeling is personified by Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Mühe), a stone-faced Stasi officer who is assigned the task of spying on renowned playwright Georg Dreyman (Koch) and his lover and lead actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Gedeck), who appear to be the last two people in East Germany capable of having any fun. At first, Wiesler is the very portrait of post-Stalinist discipline, spying on the pair with mechanical efficiency and an almost humorously inhuman attention to their most human activities. (“Sieland and Dreyman unwrap presents,” he writes in his log after the couple bid farewell to their party guests one night, “then presumably have intercourse.” The impassive look on Wiesler’s face as he listens to their groans and grunts is a minimalist masterpiece.) At the completion of each shift, the lonely officer retreats back to his dismal apartment to eat state-sponsored food, watch state-sponsored TV, and sleep with state-sponsored prostitutes. All in all, a tidy little life. But this is the story of a man’s small redemption, and it isn’t long before Wiesler begins to sense a light growing inside him, rattling his concrete walls. Mühe, in a performance that won him a Best Actor award at the German Film Awards, is brilliant here, capturing each minuscule step in his character’s subtly growing recognition of the human potential for joy and emotional freedom, a recognition that had apparently eluded him for the first 40 years of his life. Like all great screen performances, Mühe’s magic comes out most in its tiniest moments: a raised eyebrow here, a slight upturn of the lips there. It’s a triumph of muted grandeur; it’s like watching someone being born.