The Lives of Others, which won the Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars, will be available to buy next Monday.
The critically-acclaimed film, which was nominated in an unprecedented 11 Deutsche Filmpreis categories (German equivalent of the Oscars), is set in East Germany in 1984. It follows a member of the Stasi, the secret police force of the German Democratic Republic, who is commissioned to monitor a playwright and his girlfriend.
As the project continues, the Stasi member, Wiesler (played by the late Ulrich Mühe), starts to become more aware of the inadequacies of his own circumscribed life, typical of a person who was employed by the communist state. His meagre , loveless existence is in sharp contrast to the creativity and apparent fulfilment of the writer, Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), his actress girlfriend (Martina Gedeck) and his artistic friends.
As the hypocrises of the GDR become more apparent to Wiesler, his sympathy towards the couple heightens, and he finds himself interfering with the reports of his surveillance, in order to keep them out of trouble. Wiesler is, however, unable to prevent events from taking a tragic turn, and his earlier manipulation of the situation leads to his demotion within the party. He is sentenced to a lifetime of steaming open envelopes in a soulless basement: surveillance-lite.
The film's epilogue is set in 1991, two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and near the start of reunification. In this historical context of hope, the coda shows that both Wiesler and Dreyman, who never meet face-to-face, achieve some measure of redemption through each others' actions.
Das Leben der Anderen, to give the film its original German title, is the first feature from writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who spent some of his childhood in West Berlin and Frankfurt, and often visited East Germany.
It was far easier to move from capitalist West Germany to the Soviet-run eastern state, as cast members and crew state in some of the DVD's extras.
In an interview with Channel 4 film, Donnersmarck said: "We lived in West Berlin, but if you wanted to drive anywhere you had to go through the East. My parents were on special Stasi lists for having left the East. Whenever we were talking to relatives in the East, they were always looking over their shoulder, thinking, 'Who's watching this?'"
"Whenever we were talking to relatives in the East, they were always looking over their shoulder, thinking, 'Who's watching this?'"
A key member of the cast knew this feeling better than most. Ulrich Mühe, playing the central role of Stasi officer Wiesler, was under surveillance from his student days in East Germany.
He was able to trace his files in the 1990s, after reunification, and was stunned to learn that four of his informants (known as IMs) were colleagues from the theatre he had worked at for most of the 80s. He was never able to trace the names of two of his informants, and he sadly died from stomach cancer in July this year.
Mühe goes into detail about these revelations in the interviews with cast and crew, which are included in the special features on the DVD. He feels that neither the GDR state nor the Stasi knew how to treat artists or so-called "intellectuals" (pretty much anyone who wears glasses and/or asks questions) and so experiences of the oppression of that time vary greatly among those who now share their memories of East Germany. He notes that this is a key element of Donnesmarck's film, and one of the reasons it is so powerful. Watching the film, he says, made him think, "That is what dictatorship looked like."
Watching the film, he says, made him think, "That is what dictatorship looked like."
Donnersmarck also had an ex Stasi officer on hand for advice, as well as military specialists and technicians who had worked for the Stasi. However, it was sometimes a struggle to make modern German locations look like Cold War streets. As he puts it: "All of Eastern Germany has spent the last 18 years trying to disguise the traces of the old East. So it was very, very hard to find something there, we had to repaint entire streets."
Nevertheless, despite the outward changes in the former East Germany's appearance, it seems that some attitudes towards the film betray a surviving fear of examining the country's recent, painful past. The organisers of the 2006 Berlin Film Festival refused to recognise The Lives of Others as an official entry The organisers of the 2006 Berlin Film Festival refused to recognise The Lives of Others as an official entry. The reasons have not been reported. Donnersmarck has speculated on the motives: perhaps the organisers felt that he ought to let sleeping dogs lie, because the communist era cannot, or maybe it is felt should not, be dealt with in art so soon.
Perhaps it is for this reason that art, and the persecution of those who make it, is central to the film. The proponents of the GDR regime seem to fear intellectuals, particularly those who read western literature and newspapers.
In Stylus magazine, the reviewer says: "The Lives of Others turns first on an aesthetic dilemma and Donnersmarck says he simply used the Stasi’s role in the GDR as a setting to explore that." Although this seems somewhat disingenuous, the themes of writing, acting - and who controls these actions - underpin the film.
Dreyman, the playwright, is successful under the GDR, but, when singled out for surveillance, his life becomes reliant upon Wiesler's reports of his daily activities. Dreyman, like Ulrich Mühe, has no idea of this at the time. Only because Wiesler rewrites reality - and history - for his superiors, does Dreyman escape imprisonment and the horrors of interrogation.
However, the fluidity of recording and interpreting events lies behind every scene of Wiesler and his assistant eavesdropping and then furiously typing, as downstairs Dreyman discusses the failings of the state with his friends, then types furiously for a West German magazine.
A basic ability to act is essential to living in this society too. Wiesler, as his allegiances shift from his superiors to his subjects, becomes an expert at duplicity; never so nail-bitingly as when he interrrogates one of the main characters under the hidden, mistrusting gaze of his former friend and boss. Dreyman and his friends also have to have false conversations to mislead the omnipresent Stasi, when it transpires that a friend's apartment is bugged. The emphasis on writing, rewriting and acting is an apt way of looking back at this period of time that the modern, reunited Germany seemingly still wants to sweep under the carpet.
Basically, it's a bit of a must-see. The DVD is released on Monday 17th September.
Extras: The Making of the Lives of Others, Interviews with Cast and Crew, Director's Commentary, Deleted and Extended Scenes, Original Stasi spying instruments photo gallery. The interviews and commentary are particularly good, and provide illuminating insight into what life in the GDR was like.