When it comes to chills down the spine and knots in the stomach, the present batch of horror remakes and sequels has got nothing on The Lives of Others, an engrossing thriller set in East Berlin in the mid-1980s. It's not a horror film, though it does pivot on something nasty in the attic - a state security captain assigned to monitor the inhabitants of the apartment below. Gerd (Ulrich Mühe) is a brittle ice pick of a man who uses a sharp word or a pointed glance to instil the kind of fear that the average slasher villain can generate only with the help of a chainsaw. His actions have a disturbing banality. When one of his students at the College of State Security questions the Stasi's interrogation methods, Gerd quietly makes a black mark against his name in the seating plan. We assume he'll get an F, or worse.
The real tension comes when it is revealed that Gerd does have a pulse, however faint. Yes, he's lonely and unloved, but then what can you expect of someone who is always to be found in the attic at parties? Over the course of his surveillance, Gerd starts to thaw out; he's like an extraterrestrial learning to live by observing earthlings. His microphones are trained on the playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), both unaware of the new neighbour who has bugged their flat and moved in upstairs.
His job is simple: he transcribes whatever he hears through his clunky headphones. There is a pleasing symmetry here; while Dreyman is at the typewriter downstairs, bashing out his latest work, Gerd is upstairs doing the same, except that his script consists of nothing but stage directions ("They presumably have intercourse," he types, as Dreyman and Christa-Maria retire to bed). The more Gerd discovers about his subjects, the more he comes to like them, until the temptation to intervene in their lives transforms him from observer to participant. In one scene, Gerd triggers the couple's doorbell so that Dreyman will have cause to look out on to the street and witness a crucial encounter he would not otherwise have seen. He also bumps into Christa-Maria in a bar, where he gazes into her eyes and comes alive for the first time.
The Lives of Others, which won this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, is an impressively assured debut from the 33-year-old writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who choreographs the action with a steely control of which the Stasi would approve. Some of the most confident work is in the opening sequence, which cuts back and forth between Gerd applying psychological pressure to a prisoner, and then playing a recording of the interrogation to his students at a later date. The clash between the heat of the interview room and the cool of the lecture theatre makes the situation all the more unsettling.
There's another elegant to-and-fro when Gerd's colleague Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) overhears a worker in the cafeteria making disparaging jokes about the party chairman. The poor dolt is toyed with mercilessly by Grubitz, who keeps him guessing as to whether or not he is going report him. It is easy to feel von Donnersmarck is toying with us in the same sadistic manner.
The film, and the audience, could use more of that punishment. The suspense falls off in the second half, when the picture seems to go soft along with Gerd. This is heralded by an unsubtle scene in which he sheds a tear at a piece of music that Dreyman is playing, entitled Sonata for a Good Man. Now, can you guess who the good man is? But this messy sequence stands out only because everything that precedes it has been so crisp and tidy. The mood of menace established early on keeps you wondering what has happened to the characters whom the film does not follow - that outspoken student, or a harmless neighbour of Dreyman's who is threatened by Gerd, or any of their millions of faceless, real-life counterparts whose stories remain untold.
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