If you’re acquainted with director Christian Petzold you probably know what you’re in for. A character study that is deliberate and systematic in its execution, courtesy of Nina Hoss, and moreover impactful in more ways than one. In this film, the narrative mode of the period piece certainly serves Petzold quite well. The setting is East Germany circa 1980. The settings are wonderfully stark. Depressed representations of a bygone era and yet somehow still strangely beautiful for depicting a simpler age. As Americans we have a certain perspective that includes Cold War sentiment, boycotting the Moscow Olympics, and the like. But it’s a much different even intimate picture on the inside.
Our person of interest is the eponymous Barbara, a nurse stationed in Berlin, who tried to get an exit visa to the West. Now she has been transferred to a rural locale to continue her work with close surveillance by the Stasi. Her primary colleague is chief physician Andre Reiser, who is genial, but from the get go Barbara is aloof. She does not want friends and she knows anyone could be working with the police. She goes about her work being the best nurse she can possibly be, treating patients humanely. Most notable is Stella a girl from a labor camp, who is suffering meningitis, and finds a comforting figure in Barbara. From then on she is the only person Stella trusts.
In her free time Barbara can often be seen smoking, riding her bike, or taking the train, but there is always a purpose to her activity. It’s in quiet defiance of her plight — an active form of rebellion as she tries to rendezvous with her boyfriend from the West in an effort to reconnect with him. Unknowingly Dr. Reiser grows continually fonder of Barbara and continues to be nice to her, because she is quite remarkable. Together they try and decipher what is wrong with a young man who is recovering after a suicide attempt. But of course his necessary surgery coincides with Barbara’s set date of escape. What follows is far from melodrama, but it is a far more tense slow burn as we watch events unfold. Our heroine does something that will alter her future although we cannot know for certain. Sometimes the best place to end a story is inside our own minds, and that is true with Barbara.
It’s a film that can make you squirm, but also make you think and feel. The German scenery is often breathtaking, the perfect landscape for bike riding, and the birds chirp blissfully in the background. It is the ultimate irony that in such a peaceful land so much suppression and pain takes place. But then again there can be so much joy taken out of something so minute as a masterwork by Rembrandt, proving that the human spirit cannot be fully quelled even there.
In the film’s nuances you are apt to find beauty and also great depth of character. Not just in Nina Hoss, who is once again brilliant carrying an air of mystery mingled with moroseness that lingers on her face. This might be a poor comparison, but Hoss reminds me in some respects to other European starlets like Juliette Binoche, Irene Jacob, and Julie Delpy, who all carry a fascinating aura around them. The truth is American actors in general have to use so many words and in this way they lose some of their allure. Nothing is left unspoken. Nothing is left untrod. But with Barbara we do not know her ins and outs, what she is thinking, or even how her story ends.
Next on the watch list is Phoenix, the latest Petzold/Hoss collaboration. It goes without saying that I am beyond excited.