Set in East Germany during the 1980s it shows how the Stasi (the secret police of the former communist state) sought to monitor its citizens who may or may not be towing the party line. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign film last month and brilliantly weaves history and politics into a deeply moving tale of life under an oppressive regime where everyone is under suspicion.
But don’t expect cliches of the former East Germany. Indeed, Ascherson wisely notes how the film takes a fresh approach to the era:
… one of the things this film superbly isn’t is a film about the Berlin Wall. The ‘frontier’ and its crossing points do come into the story but only marginally, in a devious plot to test whether a flat is bugged by loudly planning a fictional escape. This absence is impressive. Nobody could accuse von Donnersmarck of underplaying the oppressiveness of the GDR, the only state in history which built a wall to stop its own citizens running away. But he is interested in another, more intimate nastiness.
That is the behaviour of people who are aware they are being spied on and bugged, who realise that people they know – possibly people they know very well – may be informing on them, who have a permanent Stasi invitation to become informers themselves, and who none the less want to live something resembling a normal life.
The rest of the article is highly illuminating and perceptive but I would recommend you see the film before reading it in full as he reveals a couple of key plot points.
** The Lives of Others is currently on limited release in the US and opens in the UK on April 13th. **