The Stasi was the main intelligence organization in East Germany during the Communist regime: from 1950 to 1989. These were the people who bugged the homes of ''subversives'', arrested enemies of the Party, turned family members against one another, tortured citizens, and maintained state repression in the German Democratic Republic. These were the secret police.
The Lives of Others is a penetrating look, appropriately enough, at how the Stasi and state surveillance in general, dissolves the lives of the people who live under it. The film was a success in Europe and on DVD, and is scheduled to be remade in the United States. There could be a problem in reshooting the film for an American audience, however, in that the repressive Stasi acts, which are shown in the film, might have to be ''beefed up'' a bit. Certainly, Americans are okay with wiretapping at this point, and constant public surveillance and web-cams have killed any lingering taste for privacy that we might have. And the acts of torture shown in the film- questioning people for 48 hours straight, while having them sit on their hands, threatening to hurt their family members if they don't confess, etc.- are no longer considered torture, at least not in America.
Of course, this all gets very confusing for the average American viewer, largely because the sort of things that the Stasi did are no longer considered torture- in fact, the Stasi in the film don't even use waterboarding, chaining people up, menacing them with dogs, or beating them to death. What a bunch of pussies. Jack Bauer would be appalled. Luckily, the characters are speaking a foreign language, which helps to remind us that they're not like us. But, for us ''older'' viewers, there is even more confusion as we're constantly reminded by the film that the sorts of ''tortures'' that we were told, as children, that the heartless Communists were carrying out are no longer considered torture, now that we do them. Were we too hard on the Commies? Too insistent on human rights? Apparently so.
So, what can you say about the film? The lead performance, by the late Ulrich Mühe, is astounding and subdued- while barely changing his expressions, he somehow conveys a tremendous crisis of faith as a Stasi interrogator who comes to realize that he is working not for the good of his country, but to enforce the will of Party officials, and tries to rectify his situation. Sebastian Koch plays a playwright who is slowly destroyed because a party official wants to get him out of the way so as to seduce his wife, the drug-addicted actress Christina-Maria, played by Martina Gedeck. There is a love triangle, a suicide, and high drama. The emotional repression that becomes a fact of life under totalitarianism prevents a somewhat melodramatic storyline from ever playing that way. The Lives of Others shows the inherent dangers of giving too much power to the state, which is always made up of flawed and fallible human beings. It is a devastating film that also shows the cancerous effect of paranoia on societies, states, relationships, individual psychologies, and ultimately the soul.
The film leaves one shaken, saddened, perhaps even crying. But, thankfully, for those of us in the post-Bush American audience, we needn't worry too much about the film, or its subversive message. After all, we've been, happily, reassured by our own state that the tortures shown in the film are not really tortures, the state repression shown is not really state repression, and that the constant fear, hate, and paranoia shown are simply common aspects of modern reality, from now until forever.