What Hollywood means by a high-IQ spy thriller is something like The Bourne Ultimatum: a movie with lots of fights and chases, starring a guy who got into Harvard. For the real thing, get the DVD, out Aug. 21, of The Lives of Other, the 2006 German drama that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It reveals espionage as a dirty game that can crush a man and compromise a nation without a single punch. And soon Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's terrific film is to be remade by a U.S. studio. Uh-oh.
Set in East Germany in the mid-'80s, the film documents the communist government's internal spy network, the Stasi. One of its top operatives (Ulrich Mühe) is snooping on a famous playwright and his actress mistress in hopes of getting evidence of political betrayal. Gradually, the spy is drawn into their story as is the viewer, for this is a gnarly tale of mixed motives, covert conspiracies and sexual deception on both sides. In a corrupt state, no one can be 100% pure.
The conflicts are not all fictional. Mühe had been a top East German stage actor under Stasi surveillance; he later learned his actress wife was listed as a state informant. The Lives of Others brought Mühe a slew of awards, but he had little time to enjoy his renown. In July, at 54, he died of stomach cancer.By Richard Corliss