Nominated for the 2006 Academy Award for best foreign-language film, writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's feature debut is a tense and tightly plotted fictional thriller is based on real tactics used by the Stasi — East Germany's secret police force — to spy on and interrogate their own citizens.
East Berlin, 1984: Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) is only one of the estimated 100,000 agents employed by the Ministry for State Security, a group dedicated to crushing dissident thought, speech and behavior among the enemies of socialism wherever they may lurk. But by all accounts he's the perfect Stasi agent — utterly devoted to serving as the "sword and shield" of the state and tireless in his nonstop, hours-long interrogations of subjects he's had arrested after compiling thick dossiers filled with the most intimate details of their lives. Wiesler even teaches Stasi methodology and techniques of psychic torture to future agents. Asked by a colleague in the Culture Department for his opinion of celebrated socialist playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) — one of the few East German writers actually read in the West — Wiesler recommends surveillance as a matter of course. Nothing about Dreyman's work indicates dissent, but 20 minutes after breaking into Dreyman's home, Stasi technicians have wired the entire apartment with tiny microphones hidden in wall sockets and behind switch plates. To monitor who comes and goes, his front door is fitted with a small closed-circuit video camera; the surveillance center, which Wiesler will man himself, is set up in an attic space directly above the unsuspecting Dreyman's head. The operation at first proves uneventful, until Wiesler learns that the real purpose of the surveillance isn't state security, but to separate Dreyman from his lover, popular actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), so that Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) can make her his mistress. Confronted by this stark disparity between his own cherished socialist ideals and the sordid motives of government ministers like Hempf, Wiesler undergoes a crisis of conscience. When Dreyman attempts to smuggle out an article he'd written about East Germany's soaring suicide rate to a West German magazine, Wiesler begins questioning his fealty to the Stasi, and even to the state itself.
While running the risk of becoming a story about a "good Stasi" when the full extent of the organization's crimes have yet to be revealed, Von Donnersmarck's film is so skillfully layered with complex characterizations that we're left with a devastating portrayal of the spiritual disintegration that occurred on all sides of the Stasi terror, from suspects and agents to the most compromised of all: the civilian informers recruited to spy on their own family, friends and neighbors. Released simultaneously in the U.S. with THE DECOMPOSITION OF THE SOUL, a shattering documentary about the damaged lives of two real-life Stasi detainees, the film is a disturbingly accurate depiction of a national nightmare that ultimately transcends its immediate political statement to stand as a future classic of the political-thriller genre.
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