Director: Christian Petzold.
Screenwriter: Christian Petzold.
Cast: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Rainer Bock, Christina Hecke, Jasna Fritzi Bauer, Mark Waschke, Claudia Geisler, Peter Weiss, Carolin Haupt.
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 12/4/12
Opens: December 21, 2012
Before Mr. Gorbachev tore down that wall, tens of thousands of residents in East Germany remained frustrated that they could not escape from Communist oppression. Escape? For the most part, they could not even leave for a vacation, do some traveling abroad, and they certainly could not go to the Western zone of their own country. Traffic between Communist states and democratic nations was always one way, but in East Germany quite a few people lost their lives in trying to scale the wall that separated East Berlin from West Berlin, and others who lived outside of what is Germany’s principal city had tried to flee via the Baltic Sea to the West.
In dramatizing the tale of “Barbara,” director Christian Petzold demonstrates one way the Communist government in East Germany punishes a citizen who dares simply to ask for a visa to leave the country. The year is 1980 and Barbara (Nina Hoss), a Berlin doctor, is sent from a prestigious big-city hospital to a clinic in the sticks where she expects to bide her time until she and her lover could join each other in Denmark. In a bleak Northern town that appears to find half the population working for the Stasi (secret police) as informers, Barbara might as well have tattooed her forehead with the letter T for traitor. She is supervised every step of the way under the direction of Stasi Officer Klaus Schütz (Rainer Bock), who during regular searches of her bleak flat sits calmly in her chair while an assistant looks under the bed for evidence that she plans an escape from the Eastern bloc. Barbara suspects that even André Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld), the doctor with whom she works and is slowly developing an attraction, is a hired hand of the police, not knowing whether to believe the story that he was sent to the provinces as a punishment for a botched operation.
But Barbara does not simply bide her time. When she encounters Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), a Meningitis-afflicted teen who has run away from a prison camp in the town of Torgau (which is, by the way, where American and Soviet troops met up at the end of World War II), she is touched by the girl’s affection for her and serves as her protector against the brutal police who want to drag her out of the hospital and back to prison. What’s more she feels responsible for a man (Jannik Schumann) who has attempted suicide and may need major surgery on his head.
Photographer Hans Fromm focuses his lenses on Barbara, capturing each emotion, whether illustrating her stand-offishness in relating to the doctor—at first hesitating to accept rides from him but gradually realizing that he and she are kindred spirits—or portraying her anxiety, her need to look over her shoulder wherever she walks or takes her bicycle, to see who is watching, who is ready to turn her in on suspicion of escape. Ultimately, receiving warmth from André and from her two principal patients, she must decide whether to remain in the godforsaken town—where she must even take her turns washing the stairs of her apartment complex per orders from her landlady—or jump at the chance to meet her West German lover Jörg (Mark Waschke) in Denmark.
“Barbara” is a slow-moving work that appears designed to show off Nina Hoss’s acting chops, her indecision communicated to the audience who must wonder throughout about the choice that Barbara must make. The film is acted with Teutonic gravity by Hoss, though her stiff upper lip does soften when she gets the opportunity to show her human side. Hoss won best actress in Berlin for her role in the director’s “Yella,” the title figure who is estranged from a violent husband who is unwilling to give her up. She and Ronald Zehrfeld as Dr. André Reiser would appear a couple made in heaven, but is she really willing to give up the glories of the West and her boyfriend (with whom she has a roll in the hay when she meets him in the countryside) simply to shift her emotional loyalty to the doctor and to her duty with patients?
“Barbara” is Germany’s entry into the Oscar race for best foreign picture released on 2012.
Rated PG-13. 105 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B