Lest we forget, the people of East Germany lived in a true Orwellian Surveillance State for half a century. The bland, decrepit architecture and archaic technology on display in Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-Four were the daily reality for the people of East Germany and the vast secret police who monitored them. That’s made clear in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s gritty Oscar-winning film, which reveals how the atmosphere of constant surveillance was just as dehumanizing to the eavesdroppers as to their targets.
The movie’s protagonist, Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), is a Harry Caul-like drone working for the Stasi, the secret police. In 1984 East Berlin, he’s assigned to bug the apartment of a stage actress and her playwright lover and monitor their every waking moment. It turns out they’re not subversives; she’s just a lust object whom Wiesler’s boss hopes to coerce into sex. As Wiesler begins to question the state’s communist ideology for the first time, he’s torn between continuing to spy on the actress and becoming her protector. But his relationship with her is already more intimate and perverse than the one he’d protect her from. Inevitably, the air of constant scrutiny has a price, one that becomes clear in an epilogue set after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when reckoning and healing can finally begin.