By the time Christian Petzold made Barbara in 2012, enough time had passed for his film not to be seen as just the latest in a line of Ostalgia movies (2003’s Good Bye Lenin! is a prime example). In any case the German writer and director tends to be more concerned with the problems created by freedom rather than a lack of it. Films misty-eyed for the communist era aren’t really his thing.
However, Barbara does have some generous things to say about life in the German Democratic Republic (aka East Germany) wrapped up in a thriller about a woman trying to escape to the West.
Barbara (Nina Hoss) is a doctor in internal exile at a backwoods East German hospital. Having had the temerity to ask for an exit visa, she’s now no longer a bigshot in Berlin but has been demoted and is now doing routine rounds on the wards in Nowherestadt. She’s under constant surveillance by the Stasi (the secret police), plus her landlady and work colleagues. The old GDR had the reputation for being the most surveilled state ever, and in this film you really feel it.
On the other hand there is day-to-day life there – old-fashioned, decent, relaxed and with an austere simplicity that’s not without its pluses. The roads aren’t clogged with cars, everyone has enough to eat, the hospital where Barbara works is clean, functional, almost laid back.
But there is the “socialist concentration camp” up the road, we’re reminded, just in case we’re getting too enamoured with life in the GDR, which is where the third leg of this story comes in – Stella (Jasna Frizi Bauer), a would-be fugitive whose attempted suicide finds an echo in the desperate Barbara.
But that is putting the cart before the horse. Second leg of the story is Ronald Zehrfeld as the crumpled handsome doctor, André, also posted in this backwater hospital as punishment for some past misdeed, and instantly – as men so often are in Petzold films – smitten when Barbara arrives.
She gives him scant reason to get his hopes up. Unsmiling, curt and eager to be self-sufficient, Barbara avoid the lifts André keeps offering her in his car and even presses an old bicycle back into service so he’ll stop offering. Barbara is a woman who gives every impression of being a lone operator.
But, actually, she already has a man, Jörg (Mark Waschke), a West German, hence her eagerness to get out. Jörg isn’t in the film much but his materialism sticks out like a sentry tower. So does Barbara’s, at least when she’s with Jörg – he offers to come and live in the GDR to be with her, because that’s what he wants more than anything else. But suddenly she isn’t quite as enthusiastic about it all as she was. Maybe she’s just keen to get to the West. Petzold does not explore any further.
A simple dilemma is often the dramatic driver of Petzold’s films. In Barbara it’s this: is Barbara going to take the chance to flee to the West or is East Germany going to win through? Put in more carnal terms, is she going to boff André, the handsome doctor?
Nina Hoss’s haughty beauty stands her in good stead here. She is ice incarnate, letting go only one smile throughout, a moment that effectively marks the turning point of the film. As for Zehrfeld, he plays André as a good-humoured puppy becoming increasingly frantic as he tries every gambit to hook this reluctant co-worker.
Almost as persistent is the wind! It never stops blowing, and Barbara is pictured often battling down long, empty country roads on her bike with the trees raging around her. Turmoil within, you get the picture.
Or the unseen without – the Stasi and their little helpers (everyone, more or less) are the motif that runs through this film. One of the blocks between Barbara and André is her suspicion that he’s one of their little informants, along with everyone else.
Do they, don’t they, will she, won’t she, and how does sickly Stella fit into all this? Petzold plaits the strands – romance, thriller, human drama – together with skill and with an assured sense of pace that marks out the great movie. In fact you can watch Barbara simply for the pacing alone, it’s impeccable.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020