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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Every Friday we hear from our film critic Kenneth Turan, and today he reviews "The Lives of Others." It's set in communist East Berlin and focuses on the police surveillance of a famous playwright and his mistress.

Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION film critic Ken Turan finds the movie smart, intense, and surprising at every turn.

KENNETH TURAN: "The Lives of Others" is a potent narrative set in East Germany before the Iron Curtain fell. Directed by first-time filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, its theme is the effects of political surveillance on the watchers and the watched. It turns that story into a python-tight embrace of tension and emotion that proves that moral dilemmas can be the most intensely dramatic quandaries of all.

Von Donnersmarck has set his film in the East Germany of 1984. It was a time when the terrifying Stasi, the secret police, made it their business to use an extensive network of spies and surveillance to know every secret thing about their citizens. The film is an inside look at how a society set up to discover and prey upon human weakness makes everyone a potential suspect and destroys everything it touches.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCENE FROM THE MOVIE "THE LIVES OF OTHERS")

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) (German spoken)

MARTINA GEDECK: (As character) (German spoken)

Man (Actor): (As character) (German spoken)

GEDECK: (As character) (German spoken)

Man (Actor): (As character) (German spoken)

TURAN: "The Lives of Others" does all this beautifully, but it is too well-acted a film, too meticulously plotted and carefully directed, to be satisfied with that alone. It's also, finally, too smart to be content with telling anything like a familiar story. Instead it places its key characters in high-stakes predicaments where what they are forced to wager is their talent, their very lives, even their souls.

"The Lives of Others" shows what happens when the state's top wiretapper, a captain in the Stasi, investigates the lives of East Germany's premier playwright and his actress mistress. When you wiretap as conscientiously as the captain, you find out all sorts of things, much more than you set out to learn. The captain comes to empathize with the couple he spends so much time eavesdropping on, which leads to complex and shattering results no one could have predicted.

Gradually, the film's interlinked character studies reveal a high-tension society rife with jealousy, idealism and betrayal - all intensified by the fatal corruption of the system. To create such a subtle yet gripping world, a world where the difference between meaningful action and senseless heroics is anyone's guess, is an accomplishment worthy of an Oscar and more.

INSKEEP: Kenneth Turan reviews movies for MORNING EDITION and for The Los Angeles Times.

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