The characters at the center of this German film are Georg Dreyman and Christa-Maria Sieland, a prospering playwright and a well-known actress who are lovers. Their solid affection is gradually fractured by pressures from the outside. This is East Berlin, before the Wall fell, and while Sieland feels compelled to compromise for career, Dreyman is dragged by conscience toward conflict with authorities.
That's plenty for a rich, tragic look at love, duty and betrayal. But wait, there's more. The dramatic artists have an audience: Captain Gerd Wiesler, an agent of the Stasi, the secret police charged with knowing everything that goes on and rooting out disloyalty. Wiesler's Stasi superiors sometimes come across as evil clichés, instead of the flawed humans, but that's my only quibble with this film.
Wiesler, early on, also looks like one of those stock German villains -- a by-the-book, heartless cog in the state machinery that crushes lives. That crushing role is echoed rather literally, and ironically, by the fragment of Dreyman's play, shown twice during the film. The play is meant to be anti-capitalist, rather than anti-authoritarian, but it's more universal. Wiesler, meanwhile, is gradually humanized by his own loneliness. To see him after a liaison with a prostitute is like seeing a small boy left alone after his mother leaves. Wiesler's weakness allows a tiny foothold for him to develope dangerous sympathy for the lovers as he eavesdrops on them, knowing the secrets they can't tell each other.
This is tragedy in a classic sense, with small faults of character and events leading inevitably to the downfall of the three main characters. It is redeemed at the very end with a somewhat artificial but pleasing act of forgiveness.
It's worth noting that Sieland is played by Martina Gedeck, who played the lead in one of my favorite romantic comedies, "Mostly Martha." Dreyman is played by Sebastian Koch, who is in the chilling Dutch film "Black Book" as a Nazi. Both films have a theme of sleeping with the enemy, but Koch is victim in one, bad guy in the other.