NEW YORK - What was

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

doing the day of the Oscar nominations?

Trying to hack into abc.com, of course.

The German filmmaker, who is as tall (6-foot-9) as his name is long, was in a Paris hotel room that January Tuesday, in the company of a computer-specialist pal. Donnersmarck's debut feature, The Lives of Others, a brilliant drama about East Germany's secret police, was his country's official entry for the foreign-language Academy Awards competition.

"It was afternoon for me," the writer-director recalls. "It was the day of the French premiere for my film, and I was in my hotel hoping that CNN Europe would be broadcasting the nominations. But I had no way of knowing, so I had my friend working on hacking my IP address so the computer would think it was an American computer, so it could get onto ABC's live stream. . . .

"My friend was saying, 'What you're asking here is pretty sophisticated hacking.' I said, 'Look, do it, or that's it, I'm not inviting you to any more of my premieres!' And he was getting there, and then just 10 minutes before the announcement, CNN Europe said that they would be showing the nominations.

"My friend didn't know if he should be relieved or angry, working on that for hours."

So Donnersmarck, who is 33 and fluent in English (he spent six years in New York as a child), and has a sweeping head of hair that only adds to his imposing stature, heard the news. Well, he heard that his film was in.

"I was so focused on whether Salma Hayek was going to say 'The Lives of Others' that I didn't hear the other nominations," he says, smiling.

At turns funny and harrowing, brutal and sad, Donnersmarck's movie - which opens at the Ritz Theaters on Friday, two days before the 79th Academy Awards - centers on a captain in the Stasi, the secret police established by the German Democratic Republic to spy on its citizenry. Ulrich Mühe, a popular German actor who was himself surveilled by the Stasi in the pre-glasnost '80s, stars as the watchful bureaucrat.

Assigned to collect information on a successful East Berlin playwright and his actress lover, Capt. Wiesler instead begins to be seduced by the world he's eavesdropping on: the artists and actors, the writers and philosophers, whose lives and ideas present a vibrant counterpoint to the grim conformity of the totalitarian state.

And to the grim little world of the Stasi captain himself.

"There was no privacy, no respect for the individual, no trust - not even among family members," says Donnersmarck, whose parents hailed from East Berlin. "Husbands were informing on wives, coworkers were betraying one another."

The Stasi was an institution 100,000 strong, with a network of informants across the Communist GDR. Donnersmarck spent a year and a half researching for his screenplay, interviewing victims who had been spied on and tortured. He contacted surviving kin of others who had been killed by the Stasi for trying to cross to the West, or for doublecrossing the state.

Donnersmarck also pored over the files of the secret police, opened to the public after the Berlin Wall came down.

The Lives of Others, which wowed the crowd at the Toronto International Film Festival and collected seven Lola awards (the German equivalent of the Oscar) last year, can be seen, too, as a cautionary tale.

"What happens when ideology and power become more important than human principles, human feelings?" Donnersmarck asks. "The Stasi killed people, and tortured, and imprisoned people just for thinking differently."

And how does The Lives of Others, with its almost quaint Eastern Bloc cars and couture, its primitive-looking recording devices and hidden mikes, relate to the modern-day world?

Well, in the post-9/11, Patriot Act age, the parallels are obvious.

"In the U.S., as long as you have freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the way that you do - and there is no other country where that is taken so seriously - I don't think there's anything fundamental to worry about," says Donnersmarck, recognizing that his film has struck a resonant chord in America.

"At the same time, I must say . . . I was a little surprised to see how quickly people were willing to give up certain civil liberties - that you didn't put up more of a fight. Because I've seen where it can lead.

"Of course it's going to be easier to wage a war against terror if you can listen in on everybody's phone conversations, but maybe that's just the price that you have to pay for freedom - that it's going to be harder. It would be much easier still if you went to the Stasi and had 1 in 50 people working for the Secret Service. No, actually, it would be easiest if you went so far as to take 50 percent of the population to monitor the other 50 percent. Then you would have no terrorism. None.

"But you would also have nothing worth protecting."

And speaking of . . . the foreign-language nominees, this month Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth became the highest-grossing Spanish-language film in U.S. box-office history, surpassing 1993's Like Water for Chocolate. To date, Pan's Labyrinth, Mexico's entry in the foreign-language Oscar field, has earned close to $28 million. (Chocolate: $21.6 million.) It's considered the front-runner for the Oscar, with The Lives of Others the consensus close second. (Right, so let's watch Denmark's After the Wedding take the cake.) . . . And while Pedro Almodovar's Volver failed, surprisingly, to land one of the five foreign-language nomination berths, it has become the Spanish director's biggest U.S. hit, with $11 million in ticket sales, topping the filmmaker's previous Stateside biggie, Talk to Her ($9.2 million).

The Lives of Others' Donnersmarck was among the many who saw Volver and couldn't believe it wasn't in the race.

"It's so hard to believe that there would be four films better than Volver this year- five films, actually," he adds, self-effacingly. "But I think Almodovar was very happy that Penelope Cruz was nominated [for best actress]. That's quite an achievement. I can honestly say that if, let's say, I had not been nominated for best foreign-language film but instead Ulrich Mühe had been nominated for best actor, I would have been just as thrilled.

"It really is like that, because you feel so much with and for your actors."

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/stevenrea.