Ulrich Muhe playes the protagonist, Hauptmann (Captain)Gerd Weisler. As the film starts, we see Weisler conducting a gruelling interrogation. He is a clear-eyed, dedicated servant of the state who finds nothing wrong with what he is doing. Things change when he is set to conduct surveillance of Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), who is one of the State's most repected playwrites, who has been, so far, himself a comitted Socialists. As the satkeout continues, Weisler learns a number of unpleasant things: first, his mission is a fishing expedition directed by the corrupt Minister of Culture, who is a rival for the affections of Dreyman's lover, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), in hope of finding something that will get Dreyman out of the picture. Second, he is a close witness to both the genuineness of Dreyman and Sieland's love, and to Dreyman's crisis of conscience motivated by the suicide of his old friend, who has been prohibited from working due to incidences of political incorrectness. Dreyman is moved to write an article embarassing to the German Democratic Republic, which exposes the high suicide rate in the Worker's Paradise, and has it smuggled out to be published in the west. Weisler, who is disillusioned by being used for a corrupt purpose, edits his surveillance reports so that it appears nothing is going on. Eventually, the terrible pressure of the State's interest, driven by the lust of the Minister (Thomas Thieme) and ambition of Lieutenant Colonel Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) becomes too great, and the web of lies unravels with terrible consequences.
Over the course of the film, Muhe gives a great, understated performance. By the film's climax, his bright clear gaze has darked to shadowed misery. The direction, but first-timer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, is dead on. Koch and Gedeck are very believable as the couple oblivious to the machinery closing in on them, and the three main characters are well supported by the cast of state apparatchiks and would-be subversives.
Besides the obvious lesson about the destructive power a nation state can carelessly bring to bear on the lives of the innocent, the plot also has much to say about a man's soul and when too much is too much. Weisler, the good soldier, has no compunction about using cruel and brutal methods against those he sees as enemies of the state (and the one interrogation scene should put to rest any claims that things like sleep deprivation are not "torture"--), even though that state was profoundly corrupt, but balks when he is used as the instrument of another man's base desire. Tool of the state he may be, but he still has principles, which his masters tread on at the peril of their plans coming undone. The film's end is marvelously redemptive, but sad, and, like everything in Muhe's life, low-key.
Highly recommended for persons of mature understanding. In German, with English subtitles.