Gerd Wiesler is an unlikely protagonist. A member of East Germany’s much-feared secret police, the Stasi, he is conducting an interrogation when we first meet him in East Berlin before the fall of the Wall. Wiesler has deprived his subject of sleep and forced him to sit awkwardly on the backs of his hands for hours, and the man is ready to crack. He is pitiful, begging for rest, crying with exhaustion, repeating his cover story with increasing desperation, and Wiesler never flinches, never stops pressing the poor man to betray his friends.
But Wiesler isn’t a sadist. He’s a consummate professional, performing even his most horrifying duties with great skill and tireless efficiency. Only gradually do we realize that, more significantly, Wiesler is also a true patriot, a quietly earnest believer in the unrealized ideals of his decaying country. What first appears to be bloodless workmanship is actually something more complicated: not zeal, exactly, but the sincerity of a man who believes he is doing the right thing.
The Lives of Others tells the story of how Wiesler loses that belief, how he awakens to the corruption of the Stasi and begins to incrementally reject the organization’s goals and methods. It takes the shape of a thriller but has the soul of a character study, tracking Wiesler’s gradual transformation parallel to that of Georg Dreyman, a playwright on whom he has been assigned to spy. The elegant pairing, subtle and thought-provoking, is indicative of the artistry of the film, the remarkable feature debut of writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.