Georg Dreyman, a movie-star-handsome playwright who moves with brightness and brio, has a life. Capt. Gerd Wiesler, a shadowy, inconspicuous officer of the East German secret police in 1984, has none to speak of, unless spying on Dreyman and his sensual actress lover counts.
Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is a writer of inspirational dramas that are almost, but not quite, critical of his country's totalitarian regime. Wiesler (the superlative Ulrich Mühe) is the writer of uninspired logs chronicling Dreyman's daily activities.
"Presumably they have intercourse," Wiesler types when he overhears the suspected dissident and his mistress make love. Dreyman is expressive, passionate, connected to others; Wiesler poker-faced impassive and detached. Why 1984? Because it invokes the Orwell novel about totalitarianism and doublethink.
The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's brilliant character study (and astonishing debut feature), is a duet for these two men, who never meet yet whose fates are linked in the dark days before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the German Democratic Republic.
Lives is a best-foreign-film nominee competing in a year that at least three movies in this category are stronger than Oscar's best-picture contenders.
A moral tale told with heartstopping suspense - and without a scintilla of moralism - Lives contrasts the bohemian and the bureaucrat to show how they are mirror images.
Both are ambivalent about their government. Dreyman doesn't like that the state has suppressed the work of his more outspoken colleagues. Wiesler doesn't like that his superior wants Dreyman arrested to free up the playwright's mistress for the superior's own plaything.
Von Donnersmarck's film takes place during the chilly and unending winter before the autumn of 1989, when the Berlin Wall, and also the GDR, fell. And it chronicles the slow, almost imperceptible warming of the bureaucrat who, while eavesdropping on conversations about idealism, appears to get inflamed, and deeply affected, by them.
Mühe's performance as Wiesler is nuanced and extraordinary, a fusion between actor and role that happens once in a generation. Von Donnersmarck introduces the functionary as a figure of unshakable certainty, one who deploys his soul-scanning eyes as weapons in the war against subversives.
Wiesler similarly pricks his ears in order to audit the tones that will help him finger turncoats. But what he hears - a melancholy sonata, political convictions - transforms him from bureaucrat to independent thinker.
Of the many things that happen in this surprising, sad and astonishing movie, none is more staggering than Wiesler's evolution from lowly bureaucratic beetle to humanist. In other words, the film that begins as a rethinking of Orwell's 1984 ends as a reversal of Kafka's Metamorphosis.
Produced by Quirin Berg and Max Widermann, written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, photography by Hagen Bogdanski, music by Stéphane Moucha and Gabriel Yared, distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. In German with subtitles.
Running time: 2 hours, 17 mins.
Wiesler. . . Ulrich Mühe
Christa. . . Martina Gedeck
Dreyman. . . Sebastian Koch
Grubitz. . . Ulrich Tukur
Parent's guide: R (nudity, sexuality)
Playing at: Ritz Five, Ritz 16/NJ