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No. 22: “The Lives of Others” (2006)

Germany’s “Das Leben der Anderen,” Oscars’ 2006 pick for Best Foreign Language Film, is that rare gem: a thriller that engages the emotions instead of bombarding the senses. There are no explosions, no high-speed car chases; no, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s too smart for that. Instead, he crafts a taut, deliberately paced masterpiece where the dramatic tension emerges from subtle character development and interactions. No one character acts as we expect, and so the atmosphere is one of amazing tension — even more amazing when we consider this is von Donnersmarck’s first film.

The tension begins when viewers understand the setting: The year is 1984 (how Orwellian), and East Germany’s citizens remain firmly under the thumb of socialism. Moreover, everyone lives in fear of the Stasi, the official secret police of East Germany. These fears take human shape in Gerd Wiesler (a beyond-brilliant Ulrich Mühe, who died in 2007), a cold, calculating Stasi captain who believes so fervently in the ideals of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) that he suspects everyone he sees — even a university student who suggests Wiesler’s interrogation methods are too “cruel” — of being a traitor. So he’s more than willing to accept an assignment from his superior, Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), to surveil well-known Socialist playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his live-in actress girlfriend Cristina-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). At first eager to uncover a whiff of anything nefarious, Wiesel slowly warms to the couple, becoming a silent observer of their everyday lives. And when he learns the true reason for the assignment — Culture Minister Bruno Hempf (an intimidating Thomas Thieme) wants Cristina-Maria for his own — Wiesel begins taking small but life-altering steps to protect the two people who, most unexpectedly, have melted his steely, single-minded resolve.

The key to any character-driven thriller is a slow, measured pace, and von Donnersmarck creates a world where events unfold naturally and unpredictably. Such is the case in “The Lives of Others,” and the atmosphere of social unrest — socialist East Germany, after all, was a place where no one was above surveillance — ratchets up the tension to near-unbearable levels. This is a world where an ill-timed anti-party joke lands the teller a buried-in-paperwork, go-nowhere desk job, or forces one lover to brand another a party traitor to save a career. Anything can (and does) happen, and so von Donnersmarck draws us into his serene but frightening world.

But a slow-burning thriller requires nuanced performances, and “The Lives of Others” is filled with them. Thieme personifies arrogant entitlement as Hempf, a man possessed of an overdeveloped id who uses fear to take what he wants when he wants it. (His scenes with Gedeck are unnerving.) In Grubitz, Tukur shows how power — and the fear of losing it — can corrupt a decent man to his very core. His lack of ferocity, his cool detachment, makes him more than fearful; it chills you to the bone. Koch and Gedeck, to the contrary, inject “The Lives of Others” with a sense of life and color with undertones of fear. Koch’s Dreyman knows how to play the system to get his works published, but an unexpected tragedy forces him to realize art created within government-imposed boundaries is meaningless. And Gedeck delivers a fine performance as a woman torn between saving her own career and remaining steadfast to the man who supports and loves her.

Make no mistake, though, that “The Lives of Others” belongs to the late Mühe. His work here is profoundly effective; his performance is, in a word, flawless. With the tiniest of tiny gestures (slanting the corner of a lip, furrowing a brow), he conveys Wiesel’s transformation from a chilly observer to a participant. As he gets to know Dreyman and Sieland, he opens himself up to hope, to the belief that a world of color and music and love is possible. In lesser hands the transformation would have seemed improbable, but Muehe makes it touching, astounding and wholly believable. And his revelation of a performance makes “The Lives of Others” a contender not just for the best foreign film of 2006, but the best film of 2006 period.