In The Human Condition, in the midst of a discussion of how private property is different from mere wealth, Hannah Arendt has a wonderful, relatively throw-away, line about how having a space in which one is not observed matters:
[a] life spent entirely in public... becomes shallow [because] it loses the quality of rising into sight from some darker ground which must remain hidden if it is not to lose its depth in a very real, non-subjective sense.
The best moments of The Lives of Others, to my mind at least, are those where it gestures in the direction of this insight. There are two scenes where the Stasi officer who has been conducting surveillance of a playwright and his actress lover, Wiesler, unintentionally encounters one of the people whose lives he has been privy to every small, inconsequential but potentially humiliating, details of. He knows that he knows too much, not primarily in the sense that were he to reveal enough to give away the fact of the surveillance it would remove its point, but in the sense that he is too aware of how they work, of the hopes and fears that begin to make them who they are.
The first time, he wants to give advice, but can't explain why he wants to, or how he knows that it is needed, while the second, where he interrogates one of the lovers, it is clear who he is, and the two of them have to collude in preventing his superiors, watching the pair through a false mirror, from discovering that they have met before. That moment, of awkward realisation, as he, after having asked one question sitting with his back to the prisoner, turns, where an understanding of what observation reveals flashes acrosses the face of the person who has been watched and listened to, that has to be suppressed because it is itself observed, is perhaps the best bit of the film.
There are other moments where the moral damage that is done when too much is seen is hinted at - the joke about Honecker that the Stasi lieutenant begins to tell in the canteen, before realising he is sitting next to his superiors, suddenly stops, is forced to finish, and then is perhaps teased, perhaps not, that that is the end of his career, is also quite cleverly done - but generally, there is something not entirely satisfactory about the film. Peter Bradshaw may be partly right that the playwright, Dreyman, does not quite work, although he is more ambiguous than Bradshaw gives credit for I think - the play shown at the beginning is, he claims to a blacklisted director he used to work with, butchered by the party hack who replaced him - but the real problem is Weisler: it's never quite clear exactly why Wiesler has the change of heart he does, since a Stasi officer with twenty years of experience, prepared to extract confessions through sleep deprivation, play tapes of such interrogations to pupils and mark as suspicious those who ask whether such treatment is cruel, all with a distinctly passionless face, seems unlikely to be converted by a simple piece of surveillance work.
The redemption at the heart of the film thus seems unmotivated. It is in stark contrast with the similar, although unfulfilled, transformation at the heart of Buongiorno Notte - which I wrote about here, ages ago - where the tension of having an articulate, reasonable, and above all vulnerable human being locked in a cupboard in a suburban house, writing letters to the government saying that he will be executed unless certain demands are met is all too clear. The kidnapper who nearly cracks is the one who is out in the world, who is able to escape the claustrophobia, who sees how people, under normal conditions, relate to each other. She is also young, and perhaps has never done something like this before. That she would flinch makes sense. With Wiesler, it is harder to see why. More mundanely, the film is perhaps too long. Still, for those scenes where Wiesler sees what he has done to himself by hearing too much, it is probably worth seeing.
Update, 11/05/07: Anna Funder, author of Stasiland, makes some similar points about the implausibility as well as, apparently, its impossibility, of Wiesler's behaviour in last Saturday's Guardian.