In 1980 in East Germany a Berlin doctor (Nina Hoss in the titular role) is banished to a provincial village in the latest from auteur Christian Petzold, who again uses Hoss as his muse as he did so well in earlier films like Yella and Jerichow. Barabara plays it cold as ice in her new locale, while her West German lover hatches a plan to get her out by way of the sea and Denmark. Meanwhile, she can’t help but get sucked into tragic cases involving local teens while a provincial officer subjects her to humiliating and routine searches of her apartment and body. In a police state, even in a rural paradise, everyone is under suspicion.
In some ways Petzold’s Barbara plays like a pastoral version of The Lives of Others, but it’s more mellow drama than melodrama. Petzold holds back almost everything, his directorial style perhaps meant to mirror the psyche of those who lived under the Iron Curtain in East Germany and had to watch their every move while being monitored by the State. Details of Barbara’s past, as well as the pasts of others are sparse. Petzold mostly shows, rarely tells. Classical music, a famous Rembrandt painting and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are woven effortlessly into the story to add layers and fill in pieces of character development. Most things are to be inferred, and he’s blessed with Hoss’s controlled performance where she reveals little outwardly but speaks volumes with her eyes and restrained body language. She eventually warms up to a colleague as they bond over their patients and he shares a painful (perhaps embellished?) back story, but it never reaches the boiling point.
Barbara eventually has to make a decision, one where the innate desire to escape and survive is put up against her medical ethics and drive to help others. Petzold evokes this struggle through two striking series of images: First, about a quarter of the way through the film, Barbara – with her blond hair, dark blue sweater and a basket – goes deep into a shady grove for a rendezvous with her lover who has been plotting her escape. She seems both lost and found, her lover’s arms a comfort, but a fleeting one at best with Petzold’s images evoking a modern fairytale (quite apropos for its rustic German setting) . Second, near the end of the film, on a cold moonlit seashore, Barbara makes a great personal sacrifice, braving the wind and sand battering her face, letting another take her place, as her freedom disappears into the deep blue sea.
Yet, the next morning, when Barbara turns up unexpectedly and quietly takes a seat across from her colleague at the bedside of a critical patient, we realize her decision to stay was just as much an act of revolution as the person who tore down the first brick from the Berlin Wall. Barbara rewards those patient viewers willing to dig deep for meaning, and further strengthens Petzold’s reputation as one of international cinema’s finest talents.
Written by David H. Schleicher