Directed by: Christian Petzold.
Written by: Christian Petzold & Harun Farocki.
Starring: Nina Hoss (Barbara), Ronald Zehrfeld (André), Rainer Bock (Klaus Schütz), Christina Hecke (Assistenzärztin Schulze), Claudia Geisler (Stationsschwester Schlösser), Peter Weiss (Medizinstudent), Carolin Haupt (Medizinstudentin), Deniz Petzold (Angelo), Rosa Enskat (Hausmeisterin Bungert).
Christian Petzold’s Barbara is both a melodrama and a thriller, but one that refuses to pump up the action and emotions to the degree that films in both genres usually do. There are no car chases or fight sequences here, no weepy confessions or swelling music to artificially evoke tears or thrills. Instead although Barbara is both a thriller and a melodrama, it plays things straight – and is more of a character study than anything else.
Nina Hoss stars in the title role. It is 1980 in East Germany, and Barbara has been banished from her life in Berlin, and forced to take up her medical practice in a small, country hospital. From the time she arrives, she is watched by everyone – her co-workers, her new boss Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), and most invasively by the Stasi, who like to pop by and subject her to humiliating surprise inspections. Everyone whispers about her behind her back, but she keeps her head down and does her job. Everyone knows she has a secret – and she does – but she doesn’t let on as to what it is.
Hoss’ performance in this movie is truly masterful. She is asked to do so much, by doing very little. In the early scenes in the movie, she tries to keep a stone face – not let anyone see behind the façade of the tough woman she is putting up. Yet, around the edges of those scenes, her humanity slowly starts to peak through. She isn’t the ice queen she is pretending to be – but just a woman who is justifiably scared, and doesn’t know if she can trust anyone, so she decides to trust no one. But slowly, she starts to loosen up – Andre is nice to her, some of her patients have it even worse than she does, and in the end she cannot ignore her hypocratic oath – “First do no harm”. That can mean many things to many people. Like her country at that time, Barbara is divided – torn between doing what she thinks is right, and doing what she needs to for herself.
Hoss portrays this character as a complex, complete person. Barbara feels more like a real person than most movie characters – who are puppets being put through the motions of the screenwriters grand design. In many ways, Barbara follows the standard plot we expect in this type of movie. And yet, in the hands of Petzold and Hoss (who have worked together five times now), the film feels more natural than that – you buy the clichés more than you usually do, right up to ending which has an inevitability about it that quite simply works.
There have been a lot of movies about the waning days of Communism in the past few years. Romanian cinema is starting to address this period in movies as variant as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Aurora and 12:08 East of Bucharest. Germany has started as well, with films like the Oscar winning The Lives of Others. Barbara belongs on the list with all of them. It is not as overtly political as many of those films – it doesn’t feel the need to spell it out how bad the Stasi were, but instead treats them as a fact of life that must be dealt with. This is a quiet, haunting film that stays with you long after it ends.