The major theme in The Lives of Others is that of an oppressive government's attempts to control the activities of its citizens under the auspices of an ideology and the impact on those who are watching on its behalf.
The artist being spied on is an East German playwright, Georg, who is suspected by the Stasi of dissident activities, although they are not sure what exactly he is doing. Never-the-less at the instigation of a government minister Georg's apartment is bugged and Captain Gerd Wiesler is put in charge of the case.
For most of the film Georg has no idea that he is being watched and so lives his live naturally, talking freely with his partner Christa-Maria and visitors who come to his apartment. The act of spying takes its toll on the Stasi agent Captain Wiesler who soon realised that Christa-Maria, a drug addict, is having an affair with the government minister who ordered the surveillance.
While at the start of the film it is clear that Captain Wiesler has no qualms about spying on and using intense interrogation techniques on those he believes are dissidents the fact that his skills are being used at the whim of a senior official as part of a personal vendetta gnaw at him.
He becomes involved in the drama in which he is supposed to be simply observing and looking for signs of dissent which the Stasi can use to discredit Georg. He starts by helping to alert the playwright to Christa-Maria's affair and one point confronts her directly and urges her to return to Georg when she has left the apartment for a assignation with the minister.
His sympathy for Georg is aroused because it appears that the writer is happy to work within the rules of Communist East Germany and write plays that are creative but that do not undermine the system, however, the suicide of a director who has been blacklisted by the state radicalises Georg and he agrees to write an article critical of the Communist government for a West German magazine.
The Stasi agent who is listening in becomes even more caught up in the drama as he tries to protect Georg from his senior officers who are gunning for the playwright. He falsifies the reports he makes of what is happening and being said at the playwright's apartment, even when he is being visited by known dissidents and discussing the subversive article.
Other films have tackled the impact of state oppression on those who dare to think for themselves and articulate those thoughts - The Unbearable Lightness of Being, for example, but The Lives of Others adds a new layer by getting inside the mind of the Stasi officer Captain Wiesler whose cold, impassionate attitude to his job is challenged as he is confronted by the injustice that is being done to Georg.
The writer also undergoes a dark personal journey as he faces up to the loss of his friend, fear as suspicion grows that he wrote the subversive article and ultimately betrayal by his lover. However, it only years later that he realises the extent that he was betrayed and benign role played by Captain Wiesler that probably saved his life and cost the Stasi officer his career.
The final sections of the movie jump forward in time to after the fall of the Berlin Wall when we see Georg suffering from writer's block being confronted by the minister who had the affair with Christa-Maria and who supplied her with drugs and who indicates that he Georg had been under far more surveillance than he had ever thought. Georg uncovers the full story of what had happened when he gets access to the Stasi files that were kept on him and realises the full extent of his betrayal and how he was protected by Captain Wiesler.
The revelation helps Georg recover his ability to write and gives him a theme for a new novel which he dedicates to his protector.
This film is full of nuances and subtexts, such as that of the imaginative writer flourishing in a totalitarian state and the redemptive role that art and music can play in healing human despair and humanising even the coldest of people. Although it was released in 2006 I only saw it on Saturday night and it is one that I expect will reveal new layers with a second viewing.