The feeling of repression
There’s a lot going on under the surface in Christian Petzold’s slow-burning Barbara, the story of a woman doctor banished from Berlin to the provinces in 1980 East Germany. This winner of several important German film awards (including the number two director prize at Berlin), owes everything to the impeccable cool of of Nina Hoss, in the title role here, and collaborating with Petzold for the fifth time. This is another example of how emotionally subtle and intense the chilly perfection of the new German or “Berlin” school of filmmaking can be.
When Barbara (Hoss) shows up at the rural hospital she keeps “separate,” refusing to share a lunch table with colleagues, but Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), the warm and soulful head doctor, is persistent. Pretty quickly we understand Barbara’s reserve, even hostility: she is being watched, and even Andre is probably reporting on her. If the story he tells her is true, a major fuckup at Berlin Charité that he was responsible for led to his being exiled here, and he’s only allowed to keep practicing as a doctor in exchange for aiding the security system. But both he and Barbara are serious about their work and caring toward their patients. Hoss’ slow warming up is an impressive example of her subtle control as an actor.
Slowly plot elements accumulate. Barbara has a boyfriend in West Germany (Mark Waschke) who sneaks in occasionally to visit (leaving telltale quality cigarettes with her) and is planning to get her out of the GDR and into Denmark as soon as possible. This is the time bomb that makes every scene quietly suspenseful. Two young people show up in the hospital as patients who are examples of the brutality of the government. Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) ran away from a work camp and contracted meningitis hiding in the fields; she is also pregnant. Similarly oppressed is young Mario (Jannik Schumann), who jumped out of a building in a suicide attempt and may have brain damage. Barbara bonds with Stella closely; it’s Andre who’s most concerned with Mario. One wonders at times if Barbara will shift her loyalties from her boyfriend to Andre, since it seems also at times that her duty to her patients might override the escape schedule.
The country setting, with its quiet, its greenery, its excellent vegetables and its healthy air, helps Petzold to keep his picture of GDR repression subtly understated so that we absorb it inwardly and feel it better than happens with more conventional or obvious depictions. Without the more obvious trademark images of Soviet era shabbiness, the omnipresent propaganda, the conspicuously missing luxuries, the dictatorial bureaucracy or the overt cruelty, the viewer is encouraged to internalize a sense of the world without freedom, one that grows out of simply observing Barbara’s face and her interactions with Andre and others. There is no mistaking the spartan nature of her assigned apartment or the Stassi agents who show up now and then for strip searches and the man who keeps parking his little car outside (Rainer Bock), but this is lean and mean filmmaking where everything counts and nothing is overdrawn.
In a pared down style more extreme than the director’s memorable 2008 Postman Always Rings Twice remake Jerichow, Barbara is so minimal it feels a little tight, and at the end is anticlimactic. Mike D’Angelo noted in a Toronto tweet review that it’s “exquisitely made,” but said he was “disappointed” when a “conventional shape” eventually appeared “beneath layers of subtle misdirection.” The film has to go somewhere, and when it does, it loses some of the pushes and pulls that kept us on the edge of our seats. Nonetheless Petzold seems close to the top of his game and his sense of the communist world is almost thrillingly uncluttered and fresh and his writing shows a gift for quietly making the social and political shine out clearly through the personal.
Since its February 2012 Berlinale debut Barbara has been released in over a dozen countries, mostly European. It was released in the UK release 28th September. Watched for this review at the press screenings of the New York Film Festival, Lincoln Center.
Director: Christian Petzold
Stars: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Rainer Bock
Runtime: 105 min