They submit secret reports on their co-workers, bosses, friends, neighbors, and even family members. Some do so voluntarily, but many are bribed or blackmailed into collaboration.
When the movie begins, the interrogator, Wiesler, seeks a confession from a political prisoner. The accused is made to sit on his hands and is forced to stay awake. Wiesler informs his victim that merely to question the integrity of the Stasi is itself a serious crime. When the necessary confession has been obtained, Wiesler places the cloth from the seat the prisoner has been sitting on in a bottle for the use of tracker dogs. The tape recording of this scene is used to lecture recruits in the art of interrogation. In the process, Weisler is asked a question about the possibility that a victim is innocent. He puts a little cross beside the inquirer's name. At the end of his lecture, an old school friend, Lieutenant-Colonel Anton Grubitz, now head of the Stasi's Cultural Department arrives.
Grubitz takes Wiesler to the theatre and suggests that he take an interest in a potentially dissident playwright, Georg Dreyman, whose beautiful girlfriend, Christa-Marie Sieland is appearing in his new play. An influential cultural minister (Bruno Hempf) has designs on the actress and intends to use the Stasi to tarnish the playwright. Wiesler is assigned to the case by his old friend and proceeds to bug the writer's flat and put him under 24-hour surveillance with an eye toward getting him out of the way.
As the Captain listens to Dreyman and his girlfriend he begins to like them. Later on, he comes to doubt what he is doing and to suspect the patriotism of those around him. He develops human sympathies for people his superior believes to be suffering from a sickness known as 'anthropocentrism'. He finally becomes moved to question the state tyranny to whose service he has dedicated his whole life.
Finally, he provides false reports to his boss, Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz, until the publication of Dreyman's article about suicides raises questions about the few secretly anti-Communist writers who have not already been forced to commit suicide by threats from the secret police. Eventually, Grubitz authorizes a search of the couple's apartment. Since Dreyman has hidden the typewriter under a floorboard, the search reveals nothing. Then Grubitz arrests Christa-Maria, assigns interrogation to Wiesler, who threatens to end her career if she will not talk, so she does. The secret police then organize a second search.
However, Wiesler quickly goes to the apartment and disposes of the typewriter before the second search. When the search team arrives, Christa-Maria cannot face her partner, so she leaves the apartment, walks into a passing truck, and dies. Dreyman, however, is in the clear. Realizing that Wiesler has either extracted a false confession or is responsible for the incriminating typewriter, Grubitz demotes him to letter opening or mailman. The events in the story take place in 1984-1985. Mikhail Gorbachev is chosen as the leader of the Soviet Union in 1985, and three years later the Berlin wall falls.
Fast forward to 1991, Dreyman leaves the performance of a play and accidentally runs into the culture minister, Bruno Hempf, who in turn tells him to his surprise that he was under constant surveillance. He then goes to the archives of the former East German government to examine