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Germany's entry for Best Foreign Language film at this year's Oscars is called "The Lives of Others." It's set in East Berlin in the years before the fall of the wall at a time when the secret police - the Stasi - kept files on nearly six million East German citizens.
The movie has already won seven Lolas - that's Germany's version of the Oscars. And this feature film debut by an unknown Austrian writer and director beat out the work of long established filmmakers for the European Film Award for best movie.
Howie Movshovitz of Colorado Public Radio reports.
HOWIE MOVSHOVITZ: "The Lives of Others" opens as Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler, played by veteran German actor Ulriche Muhe, teaches the class on interrogation techniques.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Lives of Others")
Mr. ULRICHE MUHE (German Actor): (As Captain Gerd Wiesler) (Speaking German)
MOVSHOVITZ: Wiesler's a colorless man. He speaks firmly, quietly and without emotion. He teaches his students that the suspect who's withholding information will often repeat rehearsed phrases and will eventually breakdown in tears.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Lives of Others")
Unidentified Man: (Speaking German)
Mr. MUHE: (As Captain Wiesler) (Speaking German)
MOVSHOVITZ: Writer and director Florian von Donnersmarck says that says that he began thinking about such a character in 1997. And five years later, two things finally compelled him to get to work. He figured that if it had been on his mind for so long, the story was worth telling. And he also realized that its essential questions are still with us.
Mr. FLORIAN VON DONNERSMARCK (Writer and Director, "The Lives of Others"): The issues of privacy or freedom and, you know, basic human emotions, like love and fear, they are as relevant today as they were then, and in a way, something like these German secret police is just an institutionalized violation of privacy.
MOVSHOVITZ: In the film, Captain Weisler is assigned to spy on a famous playwright. As he listens in to Georg Dreyman's life of art, politics and love, for the first time Weisler begins to wonder about these pleasures he has never experienced.
Weisler is particularly moved by a piece of music he hears, as he eavesdrops from his hiding place in the attic.
(Soundbite of music)
MOVSHOVITZ: Filmmaker Florian von Donnersmarck says one of the questions his film asks is whether real life can soften dogma.
Mr. VON DONNERSMARCK: Weisler is a person of principle in the extreme. He is like Lenin, who says I don't want to listen to this beautiful music anymore because I can't smash in people's heads as effectively when I have this beautiful music in my ear and in my soul.
So he's the kind of person who forbids himself from actually listening to that kind of music. And I've constructed a situation here where he's forced to listen to that kind of music. And you know, maybe if could have somehow forced Lenin to do that, maybe history would have taken another course.
MOVSHOVITZ: Von Donnersmarck is referring to a story that author Maxim Gorky once told about the first leader of the Soviet Union. Gorky reported that Lenin's favorite piece of music was Beethoven's "Appassionata" sonata.
But Lenin said he couldn't listen to music often because it made him want to, quote, "say sweet, silly things and pat the heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty."
But "The Lives of Others" takes on more than the emotional isolation imposed by ideology. It turns out that the playwright is no angel either. He's lived comfortably standing by and watching as the repressive regime abuses its citizens.
And not only does the Stasi agent watch him, but the movie's audience watches both of them - angry at the Stasi, but beginning to sympathize with the agent. With each new layer of who watches whom and why, filmmaker Florian von Donnersmarck says the conflicting meanings of each situation multiply so that nothing, not even a couple talking in its apartment, is simply what it seems.
Mr. VON DONNERSMARCK: Everything that happens in their apartment should be interesting in its own right, but of course, it's given an extra dimension by the fact that you can always cut back up to the attic where the secret policemen has his surveillance center, and everything they say has another meaning because of the fact that people are listening to it.
In the theater scene, for example, you have, you know, all these people watching the beautiful actress on stage. Then, you also have the people from the secret police, watching the people who are watching the actress on stage.
MOVSHOVITZ: It's this complexity that interests Hollywood screenwriter Larry Gross, who's written such diverse films as Wayne Wang's "Chinese Box" and Eddie Murphy's first hit, "48 Hours." He compares "The Lives of Others" to one of Alfred Hitchcock's masterpieces.
Mr. LARRY GROSS (Screenwriter): Its great model is Hitchcock's "Rear Window," which is the first great modern masterpiece where voyeurism and intruding from a distance on other people's lives becomes a symbol through all sorts of things involving people's moral and social identity.
MOVSHOVITZ: Gross points out that like James Stewart in "Rear Window," Weisler is a lonely outsider who becomes intimate from a distance with a man he spies upon. Weisler learns about Dreyman's work and his friends. He falls in love with Dreyman's girlfriend. And without anyone knowing, Weisler even secretly helps the playwright.
The effect, Larry Gross says, is to reveal the interlocking connections between a corrupt state and the people who must live in it.
Mr. GROSS: The thing about the protagonist of "The Lives of Others" is that he's a true believer in a system whose tyrannical aspects he has hidden from himself. And in the course of the story, those tyrannical aspects are exposed and the hypocrisy and the corruption inside the system is exposed.
And really, all of us face a moment in our lives when we see that we've joined up with a system that has flaws and flaws that we haven't always acknowledged, and we have to make a choice about what to do about that.
MOVSHOVITZ: He considers "The Lives of Others" a most un-Hollywood kind of movie, because even though its central character has a great awakening, that doesn't led to the expected happy resolution.
Mr. GROSS: What's really very European and non-Hollywood about "The Lives of Others" is that it keeps reminding you that the system is going to transform any choice an individual makes in unexpected ways. And although Weisler is motivated, first of all, by the fact that he falls in love with Dreyman's girlfriend, he is not able to help her in the way that he anticipates.
The film is an extraordinarily deft avocation of how the system works to disperse the results of people's attempts to change.
MOVSHOVITZ: And for writer and director Florian von Donnersmarck, "The Lives of Others" is also about a man who encounters great art for the first time in his life, and it changes him.
Mr. VON DONNERSMARCK: I have been changed by great works of art and I think that if someone listens to a beautiful piece of music and he's prepared in a right way, then, I think that can make him a better person. You know, I think that is why Lenin was so scared of the "Appassionata." He basically, you know, shut off the right side of his brain and his heart and just went for it. And this is a story of the man who fails in that goal.
MOVSHOVITZ: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's feature film debut has succeeded in sparking debate in Germany about a subject that the filmmaker says has largely been swept under the rug. The movie has been seen by close to two million people in Germany - a huge audience for a small film there. It's opening here in New York and Los Angeles today and wider later this month.
For NPR News, I'm Howie Movshovitz.
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