It’s 1980 in the East German provinces and Barbara (magnificently played by Nina Hoss), a doctor, is beginning work at a new hospital. It transpires she has been transferred as punishment for applying for an exit visa from the GDR. Another doctor working at the country hospital, Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), is told to report on her to Stasi officer Klaus Schutz (Rainer Bock) and she is kept track of at all times, with random checks of her shabby flat and intrusive body searches. Barbara keeps herself to herself and gets on with her work, which she is passionate about, while she waits for an opportunity to get out but Andre shows an interest in her and tries to get to know her. Can she trust him? Or is he just trying to find out information?
Barbara is an intriguing character, immediately likeable even though we know little about her. We sympathise with her as she is searched even though we know little about what she has done to result in her being there. This lack of information allows intrigue to captivate the audience as Barbara says little and the film slowly unravels her story and her character. The hospital patients and their stories add another element to the narrative which avoids loss of interest and demonstrates the true character of both Barbara and Andre. Slowly we get to know Andre and we want to trust him, but we are never sure of his true motives until the end, which is satisfying and rewarding.
It is a truly engaging story from beginning to end, unpredictable in nature and informative about a period not so long ago. Tension builds up so gradually that you don’t even realise it’s happening until you are on the edge of your seat wondering how it is all going to pan out. The acting is superb. Hoss is incredible as the untrusting Barbara, detached and putting up barriers to begin with and then slowly revealing a caring and passionate side but never truly letting her guard down. It is such a controlled performance, Hoss revealing so much going on under the surface with just a subtle expression or movement. Zehrfeld’s sheer physicality, his massive frame, contrasts beautifully with his apparent soft nature and adds to the ambiguity of his loyalties. The scene with the painting analysis is brilliant, adding light relief to the film momentarily. Bock is suitably menacing as Klaus, watching Barbara’s every move.
It is refreshing to have a strong female character that is intelligent, quiet and complex and can still hold an audiences’ attention for the duration. Even though we never find out her whole back story the film reveals enough to satisfy and feels just the right length. Visually there are some beautiful moments and interesting location choices. The powerful wind adds to the hostile atmosphere and the hospital is aptly sterile and cold but stylistically the film is not overtly memorable, the story and character the true focus of its attention.
The film is an intelligent and compelling drama with outstanding performances, never giving too much away and building a subtle tension throughout. One of the strongest films at the festival so far.
Barbara is in Competition at this year’s Berlinale.
Director: Christian Petzold
Writer: Christian Petzold
Stars: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Rainer Bock, Christina Hecke
Runtime: 105 mins