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The Good East German

The Lives of Others shows us that even Cold War spies have feelings.

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The Lives of Others, which won the Oscar for Best - Foreign Language Film, opens Friday at the Cedar Lee.
  • The Lives of Others, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, opens Friday at the Cedar Lee.

We Americans complain of Big Brother's unblinking eye in this post-Patriot Act, corporate e-mail era -- as well we should. But as The Lives of Others makes plain, things could be worse. Set in East Berlin, circa 1984, when 1 in 100 citizens of the German Democratic Republic was a government informant, this aptly chilly look at communist surveillance culture would never have slipped past German state security 20 years ago -- although it does conclude that a fastidious secret-police snoop isn't beyond redemption. Spying on an allegedly subversive playwright from the discomfort of a frozen attic, Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler sits in his down jacket and . . . sheds a tear. Leave an East German spy in the cold too long, and he might long to thaw. It's clear that in the years before the wall fell, it had started to crack.

Beloved in its homeland --and recent winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar -- The Lives of Others is the first feature by 33-year-old writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose studies at Oxford in philosophy, political science, and economics must have come in handy for this material. Cleverly reflexive, the movie gathers extra layers by making its police-state victim a dramatist and by suggesting that occupational spying might have been something like having a front-row seat at every performance. Encouraged by his bosses, Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) trains his steely blue eyes on Georg Dreyman's latest play and sees an enemy of the state.

Mühe, previously indelible as the besieged patriarch in Michael Haneke's home-invasion thriller Funny Games, here lends his translucent skin and hollowed-out facial features to the role of a man who clearly needs to get out more. Wiesler seems to suspect anyone who has more of a life than he has -- and that is virtually everyone.

Has von Donnersmarck whitewashed the Stasi by giving Wiesler the faint hint of a heart? If the young director commits a crime, it's in pushing the character's rehabilitation a teardrop too far.

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