It has been acclaimed as the best German film of the year and nominated in 11 out of 15 categories for the German Prize, Germany's version of the Oscars. But The Life of Others, a film about the Stasi, East Germany's ubiquitous secret police, is at the center of a row after its lead actor claimed he too had been a Stasi victim, spied on by his own wife.
The plot revolves around a Stasi officer, played by Ulrich Muhe, who is ordered to listen in on a famous couple, including when they have sex. Muhe's character moves into an attic above the couple's flat. His activities have unexpected and terrible results.
Muhe claims that his own ex-wife also worked for the ministry for state security, or Stasi, as an informer. Muhe, one of East Germany's most famous actors, said that in 2001 he was "shattered" to discover that in the 1980s his then wife Jenny Grollmann, herself a successful actor, had met regularly with the Stasi and spied on him and other actors.
Grollmann has vehemently denied the claims, saying the Stasi "invented" the bulky file on her. She has also won an injunction against the publisher Suhrkamp, which had published an interview with Muhe along with the film's screenplay, halting publication of the book.
"It's amazing the power of denial," said Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the film's 33-year-old director, who wrote the screenplay. "There is a 254-page file detailing her involvement with the Stasi. She was an informer for over 10 years."
Some 650,000 Germans have seen the film, while the number applying to see their Stasi files has doubled.
"The Stasi was the largest secret organization in the history of mankind. It had 300,000 working for it," Von Donnersmarck said. "It had 100,000 full-time employees and 200,000 informers. This was a huge army in a tiny population."
He said that while the Gestapo broke people's bones, "the Stasi were very, very different. They were highly intelligent, elite psychologists who broke people's spirits."
It is only now, it seems, that East Germans are beginning to confront their communist past -- and each other. Last month a former high-ranking Stasi officer, Peter Pfutze, published an unrepentant memoir about his time with the Stasi, insisting that prisoners at Hohenschonhausen, the Stasi's infamous Berlin remand prison, had been "correctly treated." Several Stasi victims disrupted the book's launch.
Critics have hailed the film as the most important German film for a generation. Its success is all the more remarkable in that Von Donnersmarck, a West German and an aristocrat, was only 16 when the Berlin Wall fell.
Writing in Die Welt, Wolf Biermann, East Germany's leading dissident, who was exiled in 1976, said the film worked because it gave an identity to the "faceless scoundrels" who worked for the Stasi and are "drawing pensions."