Too long has our only historical film interest in Germany lied with the inter-war period, many of which focused on a British or American perspective. It is a breath of fresh air that German director Christian Petzold (Yella) holds such interest in his Country’s reunification period. After Barbara’s disparate predecessor Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, we have longed for a film that will recreate the personal tensions of East Berlin.
Based in East Germany in the 1980s,Barbara centres on paediatrician Dr. Barbara Wolff who has been transferred away from a presumably high-flying job in Berlin after applying for a visa to leave East Germany. The hospital in which she must work lies within a quiet province where she is immediately viewed with contempt and treated with suspicion by her new colleagues. The latter appears to be valid, as it comes to light that Barbara is plotting to illegally escape the country and reunite with her lover who has already been permitted to live in West Berlin.
Nina Hoss, playing the lead and working for the fifth time with Petzold, creates a character often isolated emotionally from the people around her and truly reflects the tension of her entrapment. The constant reminder that she is always watched by her ‘minders’ and humiliatingly strip-searched after her ‘excursions’ puts strain on potential friendships, most noticeably with her seemingly good-natured colleague, André, played by Roland Zehrfeld – a relationship doomed by a concoction of fear and suspicion that is permanently present. Barbara does not wish to expose herself to such dangers, yet her indifference and even coldness only serves to increase the chemistry in play between the two on screen. In the brief car journeys the two take to travel home, the close-up shots of each character and the lingering silences say far more than dialogue might. This leaves us constantly torn between the humble affections of André and the impassioned relationship shared by Barbara and her lover. In spite of this, the relationship to watch is that between Barbara and one of her patients. It is a rare show of humanity that is truly touching against the backdrop of a regime blossomed in violence.
Barbara is beautifully shot, and never have the rolling countrysides of Lubeck appeared so claustrophobic. Petzold’s panoramic shots and certain inference to pathetic fallacy (as nearly every scene included a tree about to be pulled from its roots by wind) are some minor details that certainly prove the film is a worthy candidate for next year’s foreign-language Oscar. Undoubtedly, there is an urge to compare Barbara to The Lives of Others and in those terms it can be argued that it does not share the same chilling tone and pace. Much of Barbara is slow burning, however. The at times languorous first half is worth the ominous shadow it casts over the second half of the film. The choices the eponymous heroin must make in the final scene, however, are a little dubious and unconvincing. Yet, within the context of the film such finality only reflects the true nature of Barbara’s character. It is a film that reflects the nature of Communist rule during the period in a very tenable style and certainly one to watch, even if it is just for the complexity of the relationships and the brilliant performance of Hoss.