East Germany in 1980, in the excellent drama “Barbara,” is a country of browns and dingy yellows. The wall through the divided city of Berlin is still standing, and it is still keeping its people “in.”
However, in the communist country’s less populated rural provinces, compliance is enforced in much more personal ways.
It is there that Barbara, a young doctor, finds herself. Alone and on edge, she has recently been freed from detention (her offense is never made clear) and exiled from Berlin to work in an undersupplied, understaffed medical center on a windswept stretch of the northern coast.
From her first moments on screen, Barbara is watchful, purposeful and unapproachable.
Her arrival at the center is observed from a window by another doctor, André, and an unidentified man. “What’s she like?,” asks the long-haired physician. “If she were 6, you’d say she was sulky,” responds the other man, dismissively.
Barbara, played with brittle, beautiful clarity by Nina Hoss, is rightly standoffish. She has no remaining friends, and trusts no one in her new surroundings, especially not the particularly effusive, furry André (Ronald Zehrfeld), who, after spying on her earlier, offers her a ride home – and does not even bother asking where she lives. He already knows, and she notices.
Director Christian Petzold, who co-wrote the screenplay, has a masterful way of letting actions and body language tell his story, with conversation floating above the true meaning of things like a delicate, empty bubble. (The film is in German, with easily read subtitles.) When the Stasi push into Barbara’s home for a surprise search – and here we meet again the anonymous man from the opening scene, now revealed as a Stasi officer – Barbara stands silent, rigid, looking nowhere, revealing nothing. When the female officer puts on her rubber gloves for the final part of the search, we can sense Barbara’s scream of anger and humiliation, although again, we hear nothing.
But there is much going on, and once the frame is built, the puzzle of this troubled young doctor starts to come together. She travels to a distant restaurant, where an unlikely contact hands her a package of cash in a ladies room; later, a handsome blond businessman meets her for a tryst in a forest – it is her Western boyfriend Jörg, bringing small gifts and a plan for escape.
Back at the hospital, a terrified, pregnant and seriously ill teenage runaway named Stella somehow breaks through Barbara’s armor and touches her heart.
As her hopes for a life outside her cultural prison begin to rise, Barbara also begins to soften to André’s insistence on friendship. In brief, strong and perfectly normal moments – there are no lightning bolts here – Petzold chips away at the loneliness of all his characters, to a point where, though they may never feel trust, they are at least able to share respect, and perhaps a little more.
It is an elegantly, thoughtfully made film. Its small budget shows, and it is not particularly beautiful, but the effect is remarkably appropriate for the time and place Petzold is re- creating. It is quiet, deliberate and sometimes incomplete.
“Barbara” was Germany’s entry for consideration for this year’s Academy Award for Foreign Film. It is not one of the finalists, but as a window into a world not so long past, when the wrong words, the wrong friends or the wrong dreams could ruin the most normal of lives, it is worth seeing.
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Jasna Fritzi Bauer
Director: Christian Petzold
Running time: 105 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for some sexual material, thematic elements and smoking. In German with subtitles.
The Lowdown: A Berlin doctor released from detention is exiled to northern East Germany in 1980, where her hopes for freedom conflict with her medical instincts.