It's the mid-1980s in East Berlin, and "glasnost is nowhere in sight." This is the heyday of the Stasi, the 100,000 state-trained spies investigating every aspect of the lives of their fellow citizens. Georg Dreyman, a playwright, seems like a model East German citizen ("our only non-subversive writer who is also read in the West") but the party loyalist Gerd Wiesler has still been put on his tail. Thus begins Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck's remarkable debut feature, The Lives Of Others.
At the end of every year, when the race for the Oscars is joined in earnest, there is often a film that springs from nowhere to grab the voters' attention. The signs are that The Lives Of Others is this year's dark horse. Earlier this month, it won the European Film Awards prize for Best European Film, beating off Pedro Almodovar's Volver and Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes The Barley among others. It has also received a Golden Globe nomination. Now, with Sony Pictures Classics handling its American release, the film is a very strong candidate for a Foreign Language Oscar. This low-budget (£1m) movie about East German spies looks set to overtake a host of bigger-budgeted movies from far better-known film-makers.
In Germany, the film has proved an enormous critical and box-office success and has provoked a frank and heated debate about the legacy of the GDR years. This is because Von Donnersmarck's thriller is one of the few post-reunification films that acknowledge the Kafka-esque brutality of the Stasi era. The German author Peter Schneider called it "the first real attempt to show how the secret service poisoned the lives of millions of citizens."
What makes the success of The Lives Of Others all the more startling is that it is a debut feature, directed by a young, ex-Oxbridge, student with little experience behind the camera. Financiers told Von Donnersmarck that his script was "dark, gloomy and intellectual"; no one wanted to support what looked like being one of those grim East German parables about the evils of the communist era.
It's true that the film doesn't shirk from showing the brutality and cynicism of the GDR's surveillance system. As the chilling early scenes make clear, the Stasi had turned breaking a suspect's spirit into a fine art. Sit the suspect down; question him relentlessly; deny him sleep - an innocent prisoner will shout and rage, but a guilty prisoner will calmly repeat his pre-prepared lies; threaten to imprison his wife and put his kids into state care - then he will talk. The secret agents even created odour samples from their suspects and had dogs trained to sniff out fear. The agents also had their own, bizarre, forms of classification. For example, there were five types of subversive artist. Dreyman fits into the fourth category: he is a "hysterical anthropocentrist" and there are special ruses for breaking his resistance.
Von Donnersmarck was determined to be honest about everyday life in the Stasi era. "German movies produced after the reunification generally - and strangely - depict the GDR as funny or moving," he says, with a nod to such movies as Good Bye Lenin! Nonetheless, he says he didn't set out to make agit-prop.
Von Donnersmarck's inspiration for the character who "turns" came from a remark that Lenin made to his friend Maxim Gorky about Beethoven's Appassionata: "If I keep listening to it, I won't finish the revolution."
In the film, the ruthless Stasi spy Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) tails Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), who is suspected by party bosses of being "not as clean as he seems." As Wiesler spies on Dreyman and his beautiful, actress, girlfriend, he begins to realise how threadbare his own existence, as a state-licensed eavesdropper, is by comparison. Slowly but surely, Wiesler begins to change.
Some critics of the movie suggest that the idea that a man like Wiesler would help his prey is absurd. The Australian writer Anna Funder, who won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2004 for her book Stasiland - about the same lost history that Von Donnersmarck is trying to excavate - expresses her scepticism about the central idea behind the movie: "Joachim Gauck, the former head of the Stasi File Authority, has said that the records of the Stasi show that such a thing never, ever happened.
"The reason it never happened goes right to the heart of the East German system itself, and it needs to be understood, so that one can try to grasp the moral weirdness at the heart of this movie."
She points out that the Stasi was all-encompassing, and that it ran on fear - the fear it engendered in the general population, and the fear of reprisals within its ranks. Stasi officers seldom displayed pity for their victims. Nor have they shown the slightest sign of remorse since the Berlin Wall came down.
"Many ex-Stasi are in fact now becoming more obscenely vociferous and belligerent," Funder says, pointing out that in March this year some 200 of them demonstrated outside Hohenschönhausen Prison - now a reminder of the regime and its political prisoners - calling for it to be shut down.
"They argue that the prisoners who were there were criminals. This is a truly outrageous claim that vilifies the former political prisoners. They make use of democratic freedoms in other ways too: they sued my German publisher and have succeeded in having a page of my book deleted in the new edition."
Even if there were examples of Stasi agents behaving honourably toward their quarries, Funder questions what purpose telling their story in a film serves. "Of course a movie can give us psychological satisfactions that real life can't - the happy end, or, as here, the change of heart. I think it is a terrific movie, but I am deeply uncomfortable about this rotten core. How would we feel about an equally terrific movie made, say in the early 1960s, which showed the change of heart, redemption and comeuppance of a Gestapo agent? Whose interests does this serve?"
But whatever reservations Funder has, The Lives of Others has a ring of authenticity. In the years in which the film is set, Von Donnersmarck lived in West Berlin, but his family had strong connections in the East. "I was constantly confronted with the Wall and East Germany," he recalls. His mother was born in East Germany and moved west before the Wall was built. Whenever the family ventured through checkpoints, the Stasi (who were in charge of border control) would detain and harass her. "She was always screened with special intensity. They had her on file as someone who had left for the West when parts of her family had stayed," he recalls. "They would keep her there for hours and strip-search her. That was a very strange experience for me... As an 11-year-old, I didn't feel much compassion for the fear that my parents were going through. I just thought it was interesting, strange and amazing that an organisation such as the Stasi would have the power to undress my mother." It was, he says now, the first time time he witnessed "fear in adults".
Since the release of The Lives Of Others in Germany earlier this year, certain ex-Stasi members have come forward to defend their behaviour and attack the film. They have argued that their spying (although hardly honourable) was done for legitimate reasons. "I wasn't surprised by the line they confronted the public with," Von Donnersmarck says. "But I don't buy it. They believe they were just acting on their convictions but, at some point in their careers, there must have come a point when they realised: 'My God, this can't be right, what we're doing'."
During his research for the film, Von Donnersmarck met ex-Stasi Lieutenant Colonel Wolfgang Schmidt, the head of the Evaluation and Control Group of the "HA XX," (a Stasi code-name). He asked Schmidt whether the Stasi's bizarre smell-sampling system worked in practice. Schmidt gave a grotesque reply. "'Oh, yes', he said. 'There was just this one incident when it didn't work. We had interrogated this lady who had just had her period. There was this one drop of blood on that towel and the dog was completely confused.' And he started laughing.'"
What amazed Von Donnersmarck was Schmidt's complete lack of guilt. As the anecdote attested, the old Stasi veteran simply felt that he was doing his job. Even more unsettling were the training films that Von Donnersmarck would watch on how to interrogate suspects and break their spirits. The director acknowledges that he "tricked" and flattered his Stasi contacts a little. "But I don't feel guilty about that. There is a way of summarising the plot as saying this is about an honourable Stasi man who recognises that someone is being pursued for the wrong reasons."
Sixteen years after the reunification of Germany, it seems that discussing the Stasi era remains taboo. That, Von Donnersmarck speculates, is why it was so hard to finance the film and why certain festivals (such as Berlin) were unwilling to show it.
He says that it wasn't easy to recreate the GDR of the 1980s. "People had made a great effort to destroy all traces - in a way they were a little ashamed of it. Sometimes, I thought it would have been easier to make a film set in the 18th century." Nonetheless, the production design meticulously evokes the Stasi era in all its grey oppressiveness. "This small state had its own world of colours and forms. Almost every piece of furniture was angular, sharp-cornered and thin. The colours, whether of cars or textiles, were curiously pale and de-saturated," the director notes. Don't look for any blue or red hues in the movie - they've all been eliminated.
Von Donnersmarck was determined to make a movie accessible to everyone. "That's what I aimed for," he insists. "Although this film talks about the Stasi, I didn't conceive it as a Stasi film. I conceived it as being about how people behave when they have complete power over others; how does it feel when your privacy is in no way safeguarded?" If the recognition the film has already received is taken as the measure, the debut director has succeeded in making a film with an appeal wider than just students of an especially grim period in recent German history.
'The Lives Of Others' is released in the UK on 13 April. 'Stasiland' by Anna Funder is published by Granta at £7.99Reuse content