If there’s one thing we’ve learned from movies set in East Germany during the Cold War, it’s that those of us who didn’t experience it firsthand will never fully grasp just how difficult life was behind the Iron Curtain. As such, “Barbara,” a quietly tense drama from German writer-director Christian Petzold (“Gespenster,” “Jerichow”), may be of more interest to viewers with a personal connection to the old Germany than to general audiences. But you needn’t have lived under an oppressive government to appreciate an intimate, well-told story about someone trying to escape from one.
In 1980, a talented doctor named Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss) is transferred — exiled, really — to a small hospital in the provinces after making it known that she wishes to leave East Germany (not an uncommon sentiment, but a risky one to express). Punctual, professional, and reserved, Barbara has no friends anymore, and certainly none out here in the boonies. She’s wary of her friendly colleague Dr. Andre Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld), a teddy bear of a man whom she correctly suspects has been enlisted by the Stasi to keep an eye on her.
Despite any misgivings her other co-workers may have about Barbara, there’s no denying her skill as a physician. When a wild teenage girl named Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), a runaway from a nearby workhouse, is brought in, Andre assumes she’s faking it, as she has done before. But Barbara sees the truth of the matter and assumes a protective role over Stella. In a country known for its heartless rigidity, and in spite of her own ambitions, Barbara has compassion for this poor girl.
Meanwhile, she continues to plan — secretly, cautiously — her own defection to the West. Careful to avoid scrutiny from Andre or the Stasi (who keep popping up like gophers), Barbara plots with her lover, Jorg (Mark Waschke), a dapper man whose connections are mysterious but who has some freedom to travel between West and East Germany.
A significant component of Barbara’s character, one she even mentions herself, is that she keeps her emotions hidden. She obviously has good reasons for this in her current, chastened situation; you wonder what she might have been like before her troubles, when she lived well and worked at a prestigious hospital in Berlin. It’s a tribute to Nina Hoss’ acting that this reticence doesn’t make Barbara a cold or inscrutable character. The severe-looking Hoss, who has now appeared in five of Petzold’s films, has a natural “icy” beauty about her, but through small gestures conveys Barbara’s frustration, sadness, and turmoil.
That’s often the difference between “drama” and “melodrama,” and Petzold clearly prefers the former: no hysterics, a subdued sound mix, sparse outside music, and very little extraneous camera movement. “Barbara” doesn’t do anything to draw attention to itself, and it doesn’t underline the human quandaries at the center of the story, deep and compelling though they are. Instead, the film builds slowly to its conclusion, as subtly powerful as it is inevitable. Can a person find happiness under such dour, repressive circumstances as existed in East Germany at this time, without totally giving in and swallowing the government Kool-Aid? Or must you resign yourself to accepting certain unpleasant realities? And where is the line between “giving up” and “making do”? The answers to these questions, as explored here, might be either distressing or heartening, depending on your point of view.
B (1 hr., 45 min.; German with subtitles; )
Originally published at About.com.