THE LIVES OF OTHERS written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, with Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Mühe and Sebastian Koch. A Mongrel Media release. 137 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (February 9). Rating: NNNN
If there were any justice in this world, Ulrich Mühe would now be nominated for a best-actor Academy Award for The Lives Of Others. His performance as a coldly scrupulous Stasi officer in 1984 East Germany is so good, it brings to mind that other rigidly controlled screen character, Anthony Hopkins's Hannibal Lecter.
As it is, the film has just been nominated in the best foreign language category, and its 33-year-old writer/director with the wonderfully florid name of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is doing the promotion circuit. Von Donnersmarck is talented, but it's Mühe's impassive face that haunts you after the film's over.
No wonder. He lived through the German Democratic Republic himself. His wife at the time even spied on him for the Stasi.
"Growing up in the GDR, naturally everyone knew what was going on," says Mühe, via a translator, at last year's Toronto Film Festival. "You always had to be thinking about who you could trust and who you could say what to in confidence."
Mühe, in an elegant brown suit and wire-rimmed glasses, looks very different from Captain Gerd Wiesler, the stiff officer and ace interrogator who becomes disillusioned with empty life when he's asked to spy on a playwright and his actor girlfriend.
The Lives Of Others was a huge hit when it opened in Germany, winning seven Lolas, including one for picture and one for Mühe's performance. The actor says it's the first time the GDR past has been dealt with seriously in German cinema.
"Previous films have been comedies or had a nostalgic approach that sentimentalized the GDR," he says. "They focused on the period's artifacts and furniture, a certain type of pickle, for instance. And the former socialist characters became comic figures."
Culpability is one of the film's big themes, and it's an issue that a lot of Germans have wrestled with recently after Nobel laureate Günter Grass revealed his involvement in the Hitler Youth.
"Some in the arts community were glad that they finally got to reproach him and pull him through the mud," says Mühe. "Others were more sympathetic. He was young at the time, and naturally you had to wonder why he waited so long to reveal this information. But I think it's great that he did admit it himself rather than let it leak through other sources.
"That's one of the issues in the film, that no one seems able to admit their responsibility and complicity in the system. And look at the U.S. Patriot Act. The idea of surveillance and ethical responsibility is very relevant today."
THE LIVES OF OTHERS (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck) Rating: NNNN
Set significantly in 1984, von Donnersmarck's confident debut feature looks at the Orwellian practices of the Stasi (secret police) in the German Democratic Republic.
Playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is one of the few state-approved writers, but when a government minister targets him as a possible subversive, his entire life comes under surveillance.
Heading up the investigation is the cold and composed Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), who studies every detail of Dreyman's life. What he hears gradually affects him and constitutes the motor of the film's moving last act.
Having swept the German Film Awards, this absorbing pic, with its nods to The Conversation and The Pianist, could successfully cross over. Its themes of art and politics are richly detailed, although, as in a lot of left-leaning art, the artists are a bit too noble, the baddies too crass. Mühe's performance, though, is terrifyingly good.