An extremely nuanced and subtle examination of love, charity and political struggle during the paranoid years of the GDR.
If Christian Petzold’s 2008 film Jerichow boldly transplanted the fulsome melodrama of Douglas Sirk and the menace of classic film noir into a beguiling and restrained art house body, the German director’s latest, Barbara, is a Cold War character study that submerges those genre considerations even deeper into the fabric of its specific milieu.
The social and political tensions of communist life in the 1980s East German town of Torgau are so seamlessly woven into Petzold’s layered mise-en-scéne that the rigours of daily existence take on an almost organic quality. Wind in the trees and crashing waves are physical markers of erosion, the perfect symbolic complement to each major character’s numbing battle against institutional quagmire.
Described as 'sulky' by a high-ranking police officer (Rainer Bock) before she even utters a word, the film’s title character (played by Petzold mainstay Nina Hoss) is the kind of durable and conflicted woman the director specialises in. As with the two lead characters in Jerichow, Barbara has a troubled past that won’t stop pestering her present.
In between rounds as a doctor at a humble provincial hospital where she cares for attempted suicide cases and escapees from the local internment camp, Barbara suffers random raids by the secret police for some unnamed past offence. Despite this ongoing harassment, she plans to escape to West Germany and join her wealthy lover for a life of freedom.
So the juxtaposition of professional duty (Barbara has a natural bedside manner) and individualism becomes the film’s most striking dichotomy; a multi-faceted conflict that grows increasingly tense with each passing minute. Stylistically, Barbara avoids overt camera angles or compositions that call attention to its main character’s internal strife.
Instead, Petzold often frames Hoss in static medium shots, allowing her swan neck and curlicue strands of blond hair to hover above the green and gray hues of her surroundings. This subtle approach to composition creates the false impression of freedom for a character constantly under psychological siege.
Without relying on explicit plot exposition, Petzold reveals Barbara’s moral nuances through shifts in her facial expressions, mostly during closed off moments to which only the viewer is privy. Watching as Barbara’s emotional façade – constructed to protect her from self-indictment – begins to crumble makes for stunning and restrained cinema.
Her attraction to a fellow doctor (Ronald Zehrfeld) only complicates this process, but it’s Barbara’s time spent with ailing patients that ultimately proves to be the greatest test for her cold persona and moral plight.
Though Barbara’s situation creates numerous opportunities for riffs on classic genre situations (in particular interrogation and chase sequences), Petzold resists sensationalising his character’s mostly interior arc. Barbara envisions a complex human situation left unfinished, still ripe with possibility and nuance.
Finally, Petzold suggests that there is no escaping one’s natural place in the world, whether you’re helping the weak from inside the communist juggernaut or cherishing an emotional connection with someone who can’t keep their eyes off you. Both are simply different shades of humanity trying to survive.
Barbara won the directing prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, so expectations were high despite Petzold remaining relatively unknown.
An engaging character study about embers of humanity subverting the communist machine, and a prime showcase for the great German actress, Nina Hoss.
With Barbara, Petzold earns his stripes among Europe’s great auteurs.