Most compelling in Barbara, Christian Petzold’s latest, is the way the filmmaker adeptly conducts his tides of Cold War paranoia. Set in East Germany in 1980, and as such making it Petzold’s first period piece, Barbara apprehends the East/West postwar schism with equal measures of grace and chest-tightening claustrophobia. Beginning with the titular East Berlin doctor (Petzold regular Nina Hoss—stern, self-possessed, and delicate all at the same time) banished to the provinces for seeking an exit visa, the film creates a thick feeling of Soviet unrest as an abiding threat that both is and isn’t there: a constant.
Reassigned to a rural hospital, Barbara’s big-city smugness earns her little but the ire of her co-workers, who come to use “Berlin” as shorthand for her haughtiness. It’s as much a matter of willful pride and self-defense, stemming from her proactive belief that everyone at the hospital is closely observing her, reporting back to the ever-watchful local Stasi officer (Rainer Bock), who seems to relish in springing searches of Barbara’s apartment (and person) with cruel, impulsive irregularity. Barbara’s attitude, especially toward her gentle, teddy-bearish co-worker, Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), seems justified. After all, as they say, you’re not paranoid if everyone’s out to get you.
The initial distance, the aura of suspicion and urbane chilliness, which Petzold develops around his lead feels alienating at first, if totally by design. Petzold’s comparably reserved style keeps things at arm’s length, as she scowls at her colleagues and slinks away to rendezvous with her West German paramour, Jörg (Mark Waschke), who makes pillow-talk about hatching her out of the bucolic penal colony. Things warm considerably when Barbara begins caring for Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), a pregnant teenage runaway sick with meningitis.
Petzold slow-plays Barbara’s shifts in attitude and allegiances, effecting her careful warming toward Andre’s affections, and divestment in her young patient more manically distressed by the realities of the East German Stasi state, with great deliberateness. That stifling chuff of claustrophobia hanging over the film’s first few reels isn’t so much lifted as fleetingly dispelled. At times the fissures in Barbara’s (and the film’s) glacial façade feel a bit too methodical and unhurried, though it all lines up elegantly as Petzold carefully works toward a wrenching climax that satisfyingly delivers on his lead’s reticent private turmoil.
Barbara’s measured quality makes it seem plodding at times, nudged along as it by its sleepily low-key atmospherics, drab backdrop, and succession of medium shots. The sag is offset considerably by the rich sense of detail, from the rickety period bicycles to the credibility of Hoss’s furtive, over-the-shoulder glances. The film’s authenticity may be attributable as much to Petzold’s steady directorial hand as his background: The director’s family fled the German Democratic Republic, giving him a connection to (and felt respect for) the material that marks him as something other than just a prying West German sneaking a peek over the wall.