For those who’ve seen German filmmaker Christian Petzold’s previous films (most recently, Jerichow and the first film in the Dreileben trilogy, Beats Being Dead), the style he employs in his latest film, Barbara, will be familiar: cool, precise, omniscient in its gaze. And yet it’s quite possible that he has never quite put that style to such appropriate and cumulatively devastating use.
The director’s close-to-the-vest approach fits in the context of a narrative that takes place in 1980 East Germany, a time marked by paranoia thanks to the prominence of the Stasi, East Germany’s notoriously corrupt secret police. In an environment marked by fear and distrust, it’s no wonder that Barbara (Nina Hoss) maintains a reserved, distrustful profile among her co-workers at the small pediatric hospital in which she works (previously a more well-known doctor in Berlin, she’s been banished to this small-town hospital as punishment for applying for an exit visa from the GDR). It doesn’t help that, outside her day job, she’s spied on and periodically hassled by one Stasi officer, Schütz (Rainer Bock).
She does harbor secrets of her own though. Most notably, she and her lover, Jörg (Mark Waschke), are planning to covertly flee from this repressive police state to Poland. But two people in particular throw wrenches into her well-laid plans: Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), a young patient whose unborn child is threatened if she’s to return to the labor camp from which she escaped, and Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), the fellow doctor who gradually takes a liking to Barbara in spite of her surface frigidity.
The relationship between Barbara and Andre provides the emotional core of Petzold’s film. Though Andre is immediately struck by her on her first day at the pediatric hospital, Barbara, naturally, regards him with the same level of suspicion she bears toward just about everyone at the hospital. He makes gestures of friendship toward her, at one point telling her the sad story of why he himself is at that same hospital; her initial reaction upon hearing it is to ask, “Is the story true?” These two characters have much in common, however, beyond their shared vocation: passion for their work, care for their patients, side interests in art (he with literature and visual art, she with music).
For his part, Petzold regards this budding romance, and the possible dangers inherent in letting one’s guard down in this manner, with a distance that somehow doesn’t come off as just chilly detachment. Instead, with his usual stylistic precision, he places us inside Barbara’s frame of mind—experiencing and discovering things as she herself experiences and discovers them—while still staying somewhat outside of it. Petzold regular Hoss’s vivid lead performance, a delicate balancing act between maintaining a mask of stoicism and allowing moments of passion to break through, is key to this effect.
The result is a film that works as both a slow-burning mystery and a character study. Shunning anything resembling clumsy exposition or title cards explaining historical context, Petzold thrusts us into this environment and asks us in the audience to try to get our bearings. As one settles into this world, however, the film becomes more involving as it progresses toward a genuinely gut-wrenching climax. Rarely have I seen close-ups as fraught with such emotionally complex implications as the ones that bring Barbara to its haunting denouement.
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