The Lives of Others (Der Leben der Anderen) is an account of East Berlin artists under surveillance by the Stasi, the German Democratic Republic's feared secret police, during the GDR's last years. The film brings to light the systematic destruction of cultural creativity under authoritarian communism, in this case, East Germany. After the fall of Nazism in the 1940s, Germany became an occupied country - the capitalist U.S., U.K., and France to the west (including West Berlin) and Stalinist U.S.S.R. to the east (as well as East Berlin). The GDR, modeled after the Soviet Union's totalitarian, bureaucratic regime, proved to be no better than the Nazis. It is the East German setting where the fight for artistic freedom against Stalinism takes place.

The Lives of Others opens in 1984. A Stasi agent and part-time state security academy professor, Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), uses sleep deprivation to force a prisoner to inform on his peers. He relays the torturous interrogation to his students in the classroom as a case study. He ominously makes a note when a student calls the methods "inhumane." His superior, Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) appreciates the loyal Wiesler's efforts and invites him to a play. There, Wiesler observes the regime's favorite playwright, Georg Dreyman. Dreyman is a self-avowed communist (one of many who blindly supported Stalinist nations). He is seemingly loyal to the GDR, though he has reservations on how the government treats his peers, who are more open in their dissent. Wiesler suggests that Dreyman should be investigated and the Stasi begins surveillance of the writer's apartment. This includes secret recordings of Dreyman's conversations and intimate activities, as well as meddling in his relationship with his actress wife, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Wiesler eventually discovers the real reason for the investigation. Minister Hempf of the Party Central Committee (Thomas Thieme) is setting up Dreyman for arrest, so he can have his way with Christa. Like her husband, the actress maintains an exterior of conformity in the face of oppression. In order to retain her wealth and fame, she reluctantly submits to Hempf's advances.

Dreyman continues to be politically inert, despite the pleas from his circle of friends to take action against the GDR's cultural suppression. This changes when his close friend and colleague, a blacklisted writer, commits suicide. This prompts Dreyman to secretly write an expose on the suicide rate in East Germany, publishing statistics that went unrecorded by the GDR since 1977. With the help of his fellow writers, he smuggles them to the West. Meanwhile, Wiesler, who is monitoring all of this, grows to respect Dreyman and his friends. He begins to question his own role in destruction of the artists' work and lives. Wiesler decides to covertly obstruct the investigation by falsifying reports to cover for Dreyman's actions. However, his boss, Grubitz, is not satisfied with the operation, so he personally blackmails Christa into cooperating with the Stasi, which leads to a tragic chain of events.

The Lives of Others takes care to detail the generic life in a Stalinist country and its detrimental impact on a generation of talented artists forced to serve the state. Indeed, the crimes of Stalinism did much to destroy genuine anti-authoritarian political and cultural movements and alienated many from communism and into the arms of capitalism. This should serve as a warning to those seeking to embrace state socialism as an alternative to capitalism. The film does well when it portrays the contradictory actions of the characters faced with immense sociopolitical circumstances. Ulrich Muhe, as the stoic but humanely conflicted Wiesler and Martina Gedeck as Christa, the actress tortued by the politics of fame, give notable performances. These strengths help overcome the film's weaknesses, which include improbable naivete among the writers (Dreyman is completely aware he is being watched the whole time) and borderline sentimentality. Also, the debuting writer-director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, implies that cultural freedom from Stalinism is found in Western capitalism, thus dodging greater anti-authoritarian questions. Although liberal republics tend to be more open, privately owned cultural outlets only allow what is profitable and not too damaging to its own power structures. They are merely the mirror images of state-owned media (but that is a film in itself). Despite the film's specious illusions, The Lives of Others is sincere in its argument for artistic freedom.