Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck — his name is a mouthful, but remember it. He’s that good. In his feature debut as director and screenwriter, von Donnersmarck burrows into the erotic, engrossing and thoroughly nasty business of spying. The place is East Berlin, in 1984, the Wall is still up, glasnost is far off and the Stasi (secret police) don’t believe in privacy. Stasi captain Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) wants to find dirt on Georg Dreyman (the attractively urbane Sebastian Koch), a playwright who raises suspicion by being loyal. Wiesler bugs the apartment where Dreyman lives with the actress Christa-Maria Sieland (the throaty, sensual Martina Gedeck), not knowing that culture minister Hempf (Thomas Thieme) wants Dreyman jailed so he can move in on the babe. Wiesler, engulfed by the lives of these others, commits the cardinal sin: He lets his job become personal.
Using the thread of that story line, the director weaves a complex political thriller that touches an emotional chord. All the performances are top-tier — Koch is a star in the making — but it’s Muhe who leaves the deepest impression. Playing a robot of a man astonished to find his armor pierced by humanity, Muhe crafts a portrait as mesmerizing as it is memorable. In a surprise coda, set in the early 1990s, the film raises the stakes, striking provocatively at the hidden agendas behind homeland security. It’s an ending you don’t see coming, yet it feels totally right. Von Donnersmarck has crafted the best kind of movie: one you can’t get out of your head.