(12/04/07) – It’s an impressive track record for a debut feature. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others swept seven Lolas, three European Film Awards and an Oscar. It would seem surprising given that this is basically a claustrophobic and long drama with a tight cast and little location work. But The Lives of Others is an utterly gripping, chilling and occasionally heartbreaking thriller set in the "so paranoid and unbelievable it must be true" world of pre-unification Germany (GDR) under the dreadful eye of the state security organisation, the Stasi.

The state party of the GDR had a vision whereby the entire of its society would be under total surveillance, its legal system such that minor infractions could result in long periods of incarceration and even casual conversations could become indictable. To realise this socialist Orwellian authority the Stasi had over 180,000 individuals monitoring and recording even the most mundane aspects of the everyday lives of its citizens. The Lives of Others shows just one such surveillance exercise and the way that a single operation affects the lives of not only its subjects but also those whose job it is to instigate it. This is a tale of a country so paranoid, so ordered, that even the prostitutes have rigorously applied working schedules.

Playwright Georg Dreyman comes under the suspicion of the Stasi, partly because of his subversive friendship with blacklisted director Albert Jerska but also because greasy Minister Hempf has impure intentions on Dreyman’s actress girlfriend Christa – intentions that he has the power and influence to make reality. Assigned the laborious task of viewing Dreyman’s every movement via a multitude of bugs and cameras is the quiet and loyal party worker Grubitz. But Grubitz begins to have doubts about his job when he realises that the party echelons are corrupt career individuals concerned about personal progression over the socialist idea of citizenship and begins subtly to alter his reports…

Shot in an appropriately muted colour scheme that emphasises the drab surroundings and uniform apartment buildings The Lives of Others depicts a claustrophobic world where loyalty is a fragile entity that can be shattered through the shear weight of fear wielded by an omnipotent state. The way that characters interact even when they are unaware of each others’ presence reinforces the sense that everyone feels watched all the time, fearful of being dragged into interrogation rooms where specially designed seat covers collect the scent of sleep-deprived suspects should the need for tracking them with dogs ever arise. The tragedy of the story lies in taking this totalitarianism and focusing on the way that it can destroy people and their relationships – often not for a perceived greater good but often for personal greed or power. In this way the focus of the investigation (but not really the film) is that of Dreyman, the writer whose anguish at the state of things leads him to consider writing dissident texts. He is, in many ways, the most resolute and therefore simple to understand character, providing a solid basis for the other characters to weave a terrible web of forced infidelity and betrayal. This is cloaked in the cold war trappings of the spy genre (secret compartments with special typewriters, heavily orchestrated bug planting exercises, raincoat-clad clandestine meetings in parks) but resonates because the protagonists aren’t special agents but ordinary people, scared by their situation and trying to live out whatever modicum of happiness they can grasp in an oppressive land.

By turns tense, tragic and engaging The Lives of Others is a quiet thriller that stays with you through its story of people trying to find humanity in a dehumanised society.

The Lives of Others opens in the UK tomorrow, 13 April.