At the center of The Lives of Others is Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), a quietly proud Stasi officer who has spent his life and career in unquestioning service of the East German government. His service is not blind: Wiesler is a man who serves with full knowledge of what his State does to its enemies -- indeed, he teaches interrogation at the Stasi University, and is applauded by students for his ability to break suspects. He's not a mindless functionary but an intelligent man who sincerely feels socialism is the best path for his country, and that the Stasi provides a crucial service. Not a proponent of belligerent proselytizing, Wiesler simply observes the world around him, judging with his sad eyes when he sees others whose commitment to the State stems from self-interest rather than true devotion to its principles. When his superior and old friend Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) becomes increasingly focused on his own advancement within the Stasi hierarchy, Wiesler offers the dour disapproval of a parent, quietly asking the other to remember why they first joined the Party.

Dragged by Grubitz to the theater one night on yet another of his friend's steps towards self-advancement, Wiesler sees a play by Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch in a charming, low-key performance), one of the few high-profile, truly talented playwrights in the country fully committed to the Socialist cause. After spending most of of the show watching Dreyman, Wiesler becomes vaguely suspicious of the man's true feelings and, through a series of accidental circumstances, finds himself charged with setting up and directing surveillance on Dreyman's apartment.