[This review was originally posted as part of our 2012 New York Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of Barbara.]
Many films that depict East Germany go for a certain kind of bleakness. Everything is grey, stark, windless. The Stasi (the secret police) are everywhere, and on every street is one of their ominous, snub-nosed cars. The people of the GDR are humorless, maybe because they’ve had the color removed from their lives by fear.
Barbara resists these cliches. The rural setting is almost idyllic. There’s color everywhere, the landscape is alive, and the people, while oppressed by their own government, are able to find contentment (though not happiness). And since this is a movie centered around a rural hospital, it’s pretty remarkable that each child gets great medical treatment — four doctors per kid, totally unheard of here.
Yet the fear is still there, especially for the title character played by Nina Hoss. She yearns to leave the GDR for good. So much of the movie allows silence to emphasize the characters’s underlying emotions. You don’t need to have long shadows cast by the Stasi in an alleyway; they don’t need to bark threats. All you need, and what’s more effective in this film, is the sound of a car pulling up outside and a little tremble as Barbara checks who it is through a small crack in the drapes.
Director: Christian Petzold
Release Date: December 21st, 2012 (limited)
Barbara’s life as a country doctor wasn’t her choice. She’s a skilled medical professional, but she’s been punished by the government since she applied for an exit visa. In the real-life GDR, female doctors were sent to provinces to work at their hospitals, so Barbara’s fate is true to life. She’s been set up with a small apartment within biking distance of the country hospital, but the Stasi keep her under continual watch. While at home, Barbara is paranoid. She sits tense and guarded, like an expectant prisoner. She’s like a teenage girl waiting for her folks to come home and scold her about something.
I mentioned that Barbara looks out her window with a little tremor of fear, and it’s so bad that even a passing car makes her check the street just in case. Occasionally she’ll be visited by Klaus, a taciturn Stasi official (Rainer Bock). Her apartment is scoured. Barbara stands meek at the doorway as her things pile on the floor and furniture gets turned over. Klaus just sits in a chair without saying anything, looking at her carefully. He’s reading her for signs of guilt, or for side glances that may hint at something stashed away somewhere they haven’t checked yet. The performances and Petzold’s control of each scene give the searches a sense of cold menace. It’s treated so routinely and without cartoon villainy, which feels like an accurate portrait of life in the East German police state. When the female Stasi official arrives to perform a strip search, the look on Barbara’s face is equal parts indiginity and inconvenience.
What adds to this authenticity are the bright spaces of the hospital Barbara works at. These are pockets of ease, ones which had to exist in some form in a country aspiring toward a utopian ideal (even if it was through a repressive, Stalinist hand). Hoss’s performance shows a slight erosion of fear while she’s at work, but only just. Part of the interest in watching Barbara is seeing if she’ll come to trust her colleagues, particularly André (Ronald Zehrfeld), the head of the hospital. He makes overtures to her to open up and be more social, though she’s hesitant. There’s a sense that he may be in league with the Stasi, ditto her fellow doctors. But André’s commitment to this small country hospital helps win little snatches of trust.
Barbara’s warmth mostly shines through with her patients. She reads The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Sophie (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), a runaway admitted to the hospital. (It’s a German translation, which makes me wonder how Twain’s patois could possibly carry over.) It eases the girl’s troubles and helps her sleep, and we see an almost maternal dedication from Barbara even if she’s too exhausted to keep reading. There’s the possibility that Sophie may be sent to a work camp as soon as she’s well again, so whatever ease Barbara can give, she gives. The book’s good (at least until the last 10 or so chapters), but it’s a telling pick for her character to read to a fellow prisoner — like Huck and Jim, all they want is to head west, to freedom.
This is where the intrigue comes into Barbara, which could have simply been a fine character study of a strong woman trying to live with dignity when her government wants rob her of it. Barbara is not content to remain in the GDR and is carefully planning an escape. She has clandestine meetings with a lover from West Germany (Mark Waschke) who may be able to help secret her out to freedom. They meet out in the woods for a tryst, and Barbara’s trembling iciness we’ve grown accustomed to melts as she gives in to this brief passion. But again, the quiet spaces help emphasize the fear. Do they hear a car coming down the road? Whose car? Are they being watched? Were they followed?
Barbara’s lover promises her a better life in a place where she can be happy. It’s the freedom she wants to have, or at least an idea of freedom. There’s an expectation that she’d pour herself into the role of a housewife, which itself might be considered another kind of prison. Not all housewives are prisoners, but what if they’d rather make a living as a doctor rather than keep a clean home? This question of freedom that’s the subtext of Barbara isn’t necessarily an indictment of capitalism or a critique of western values, but I think it’s an interesting way to consider what someone else might think of freedom. It would be a far more ideal situation to leave the GDR since it’s a hopeless place, but does her lover understand that her sense of freedom goes beyond a mere change of place; that it’s about exercising her own will and being her own person?
The suspense is a quiet but tense one, and we’re also given a moral struggle in Barbara. The character and the audience wonders how she would be free on her own terms if she successfully escapes. There’s also the possibility that she won’t make it. The Stasi is a constant presence, and if she doesn’t leave soon enough, they’re bound to find something in her apartment that will give her away — something small from the west, or maybe some telltale sign she doesn’t intend to stay. There’s a friendship growing between Barbara and André all the while, but she still can’t fully trust in him. There’s a growing fondness for all the patients at the hospital, but she can’t take care of them much longer.
Barbara is Hoss’s vehicle, and all these struggles of freedom, morality, and dignity show in her face and her body language. A long stare means more, so does a smile, so do crossed arms. Even the sound of Barbara’s breathing can communicate so much. Petzold’s worked with Hoss on four previous films, which I’m now really eager to see. This kinship between the two probably helped get the most out of all the other actors as well. Every character in Barbara has a life that goes beyond the screen. They all seem as lived-in as the hospital in the film. (Barbara was shot at an actual, working hospital in part of the former GDR.) Even the Stasi have surprising dimension.
The final scenes of Barbara are a testament to the Petzold’s careful direction. All of Barbara’s internal struggle leads to a series of choices, major ones, existential ones, the sort of decisions she’ll have to live with for a lifetime. There’s a look on her face that tells you how she feels about it, there are sounds that are somehow louder than bombs, and it all happens in a place that underlines her final, internal statement about freedom, morality, and dignity. No words are spoken, but none need to be. Hoss and Petzold make it impossible to misinterpret the moment.