What is a person's capacity for change? What are the lines between right and wrong, and who decides where those lines are drawn? These are the questions at the heart of The Lives of Others, nominee for Best Foreign Picture, which comes into the Oscar race boasting seven Lola Awards (the German equivalent of the Academy Awards) and European Film Awards for Best Film, Best Actor (Ulrich Mühe) and Best Screenwriter. Set in East Germany about four-and-a-half years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, The Lives of Others follows Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), a Stasi (Secret Police) officer who believes wholeheartedly that the job he does is in the best interest of the State and the ruling Party. Wiesler takes the Stasi's motto -- "To know everything." -- quite seriously. We meet Wiesler as, with eerie calm and a relentless --yet misleadingly gentle -- approach, he conducts an interrogation on a prisoner whose neighbor escaped to the West.
Wiesler, teaching the future generation of Stasi officers, uses a tape of the interrogation of this poor, unfortunate soul to demonstrate to his class how, by sleep-depriving prisoners for a period of days, one can break them and get them to confess. Wiesler does his jobs, both teaching and police work, with a calm detachment; he is a moral straight arrow, a man utterly convinced that what he is doing is right. He believes so deeply in the system, he no longer questions it at all -- if he ever did. The players and events that set the gears of the story in motion all come together one night when Wiesler is invited by his old Stasi school chum, Lt. Col. Grubitz (Ulrich Kukur) to attend the latest play written by Party golden boy Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), one of the few "intellectuals" who vocally supports the Party in spite of his close friendships with artists who are considered dangerously outspoken.