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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Review: Barbara (2012)

* * * *

Director: Christian Petzold
Starring: Nina Hoss

Christian Petzold's Barbara tells us everything we need to know about its eponymous character within its first two minutes. Having arrived at the rural hospital where the Stasi have banished her to work, she checks her watch and then sits down to have a cigarette. From an upper window inside the hospital two men watch her, one stating to the other, "She won't be even one second too early. She's like that." She'll do what's required but absolutely nothing more, quietly rebelling against the totalitarian government seeking to crush her under its thumb, biding her time until she makes her move. Anchored by an incredible performance by Nina Hoss and proceeding in steady, methodical fashion, Barbara is a film that uncoils itself slowly, but leaves a lasting impression.

Barbara is set in 1980 in an unnamed village near the Baltic Sea. Having endured a period of incarceration after making a request to leave East Germany, Barbara, a doctor, has been sent to the village to work at its hospital and to be under the watchful eye of the local Stasi agents. She is also under watch by Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), the chief physician who accidentally gives himself away as a Stasi informant when he offers Barbara a ride home after work and gets her there without first having to ask where she lives. The professional relationship which develops between them in light of what he's doing and the fact that she knows he's doing it is marked by a hushed hostility on her side and an unruffled persistence on his. If he's troubled by his work with the Stasi he doesn't show it, and though he offers an explanation as to why mid-way through the film, Barbara doesn't believe it and the film's carefully crafted undertone of suspicion leaves Andre a somewhat ambiguous figure. He's drawn to Barbara despite her discordant personality and above his duty as an informant, but he remains determined to toe the Stasi line and do what's expected of him. While Barbara finds herself torn between her professional duties to patients in East Germany and her desire to escape to the west, Andre has long since accepted things for the way they are and merely wants to do his work.

Despite being under close observation, which results in the Stasi agents searching her house for contraband and subjecting her to various personal humiliations and intrusions, Barbara has plans to flee East Germany with the help of her West German boyfriend Jorg (Mark Waschke). Though Jorg goes to great lengths to arrange Barbara's flight, their brief scenes together reveal that he doesn't know her very well, as he suggests at one point that he could move to East Germany to be with her (a suggestion which shocks her given how abhorrent she finds the country's regime) and then informs her that once she defects she could give up her work and he would support her financially. Given what we see of Barbara's dedication to her patients throughout the film, we know that this would never work, and her connection to two patients, in particular, jeopardizes her plans for escape. One is Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), a pregnant runaway from a labor camp who wants to escape to the west for the sake of her child. The other is Mario (Jannik Schumann), a suicidal patient who requires brain surgery. As the day of her escape approaches, crises with both patients will bring her to a crossroads where she must decide what she's willing to sacrifice.

Hoss, reuniting with Petzold in their fourth collaboration, delivers a performance that is at once steely and full of humanity. Barbara is a character hardened against the system which surrounds her and who eschews any attempts at pretense because living under a State which attempts to control everything, her reactions are one thing she can take control of. Her directness in this respect, particularly with Andre, comes off as hostile and sometimes makes the character seem a little too prickly to be likeable, but in Hoss' hands Barbara comes by it naturally rather than in a way that seems deliberately provocative. She's simply a woman who's fed up with the system and unwilling to pretend otherwise, suspicious of the motives of most of the people around her but open to others, particularly those in need. Hoss' performance is measured but deeply affecting and Barbara emerges as so fully realized character that even in her many silences her point-of-view comes across loud and clear.

Although it moves slowly and with absolute precision, Barbara builds gracefully and effectively. With seeming effortlessness, it nurtures a sense that its main character is being watched even in scenes where it isn't obvious that she is, which gives the film a feeling that the walls are closing in even when the characters are outside in open spaces. Narratively speaking the film is strong and confident enough in the power of its story to unfold at a restrained pace. Though the ultimate solution to Barbara's third act moral dilemma isn't necessarily surprising, by that point Barbara has more than earned the right to that kind of finale. This is quite simply a great film.

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