The Lives of Others ★★★★½

This is the sort of drama that could be classified as melodramatic oscar bait fare if it weren't so well executed. It's doing nothing particularly exciting but tells an incredibly compelling and often moving story with great performances. Stories of human decency in difficult situations carry inherent weight that The Lives of Others is able to tap into and deliver in a drama that asks big picture moral questions on the smallest possible scale.

German surveillance employee Gerd Wiesler is the best at what he does- sniffing out dissent and obtaining incriminating evidence. Results matter more than treatment of suspects in his line of work as we learn from an opening scene showing an interrogation in which he forces a man to stay awake for 40 hours. When asked why he treated someone like that in a lecture he offers a clinical explanation: an innocent prisoner gets angry when kept awake, a guilty prisoner will sit complacent or cry. He's single minded in his work with seemingly no social connections, hiring prostitutes instead of pursuing a romantic partner.

Wiesler's suspicion of the "only non-subversive" playwright helps get him put under surveillance, headed by Wiesler naturally. This sort of long term monitoring of a potentially guilty party turns out to be a completely different beast when compared to interrogation of those the officials already had evidence on. If asked if the state should be permitted to listen to its citizens for dangerous political activity he would of course say yes. But what about this specific man and his girlfriend? Is it fair to classify them as enemies of the state, to reduce their entire lives to political affiliation? Wiesler finds it more and more difficult to report damaging information until eventually he's willing to give his entire career for their sake.

His final turn to helping the young couple, tears at hearing a piano piece, is a touching scene that threatens the dreaded "cheesy" descriptor. There are only two moments of the film that fall flat for me and go too far into the melodramatic: the actress being hit by the car and the writer's inexplicable decision to not thank Wiesler in person but instead hope he sees a thanks in an upcoming book. Outside of those moments the film does an admirable job of toeing that line and feeling real while still aggressively pursuing emotional response from the audience. I'm really impressed with the film and think it's a great example of a starting point for foreign film that's almost certain to go over well.

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