Barbara (2012) is a low-key, nearly minimalist drama about an East German doctor keeping co-workers and neighbors at arm's length while she plots to flee to the West and into the arms of the West German boyfriend trying to facilitate her escape. The film is quietly tense and effective, and interesting as a portrait of East German life under the constant eyeballing of the infamous Stasi, though its climax is predictable and the movie itself is a bit overlong, with one scene in particular undermining its overall effectiveness.
The Adopt Films Blu-ray of this critically-lauded film from writer-director Christian Petzold (who won the Silver Bear prize for Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival) offers a good transfer but is otherwise barebones, with "Play Feature" the sole option on its menu screens.
Good poster art shows Barbara (Nina Hoss) turning her back on East German society
In 1980, Barbara (Nina Hoss), a highly-regarded physician working at Charité, East Berlin's most prestigious hospital, is suddenly transferred to a small provincial pediatric one near the Baltic Sea after she files an "Ausreiseantrag," a request to emigrate from the East to West to join her West German boyfriend. The movie opens as she arrives there, where she seems to be under constant surveillance by the Stasi, the secret police. The busybody landlady at her somewhat ratty apartment complex and Barbara's co-workers at the hospital all seem aware of her political status.
She keeps everyone at an emotional arm's length, trusting no one, even though this makes everyone think she's merely snobby. The humanist chief physician, André Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld), claims to have been similarly exiled, that he was held responsible for an incubator accident that left two infants permanently blinded. However, Barbara doesn't trust him even as he seems to be making sincere romantic advances.
Two cases dominate Barbara's early days, one involving a pregnant girl, Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), who escaped from a hard labor camp only to contract meningitis while hiding out in the fields. The other is a young man, a suicide attempt, who's suffered a brain injury that has seemingly drained away all emotion. The film likens the lad's condition to Barbara's hardened heart.
Meanwhile, she plots with boyfriend Jörg (Mark Waschke) to slip out of the country. He provides her with the money to pay a sailor to smuggle her to Denmark. She hides the money while the Stasi, represented by Officer Klaus Schütz (Rainer Bock) repeatedly has her apartment tossed and Barbara herself subjected to humiliating body cavity searches.
Watching Barbara one can easily understand why two-thirds of Germans mistrust the United States after revelations about its NSA spying on its citizens and politicians. The core of the picture is Barbara's obsessively circumspect existence, her unwillingness to trust anyone or let anyone or anything get close. In one scene a genuinely friendly young woman introduces herself by offering her name, Steffi. Barbara does not reflexively offers hers in return. Indeed, Barbara's every response, from the beginning of the film to its conclusion is measured and withholding.
If she's paranoid, then most of the paranoia seems fully justified, and by the halfway point the audience is as fearful as she is. In one scene a piano tuner unexpectedly shows up at her doorstep. He's just there to tune her piano, a gift from Dr. Reiser, yet one half expects him to slip a bugging device in the piano while he's there.
The rural setting is interesting. One tends to think of East Germany only in East Berlin terms: the decaying, shell-pocked buildings on the other side of the Wall and barbed wire, a contrast to the sparklingly modern buildings in the West. Here, Barbara's new town is actually quite pretty, despite all the faulty electrical outlets and underequipped hospital wards.
My main complaint is that I easily figured out how the story would play out barely 45 minutes into the film, and thus it offers few surprises. The movie wisely tells its story from Barbara's limited perspective so that we don't know for sure who is secretly monitoring her and who is merely nosy. However, one scene cuts away from Barbara's awareness, to show Stella's latest escape from the work camp, which in turn undercuts the last act's effectiveness because everything to follow has been so clearly telegraphed. The movie also ends on a kind of falsely optimistic note that ignores the possible, even likely negative consequences of the heroine's actions.
The cast is good, with Hoss's chain-smoking physician looking like a beautiful woman prematurely aging rapidly under the stress of constant surveillance.
Video & Audio
Barbara appears to have been shot on 35mm film but possibly finished digitally, judging by the look of the opening and closing titles. The image is up to contemporary standards, the transfer a presumably accurate representation of the theatrical release. In German with English subtitles (which err in not translating an important personal note around the 17-minute mark), the Dolby Digital Stereo is also fine. No Extra Features.
A bit overrated but still quite good, Barbara is an intriguing, quietly intense drama of a not so distant oppressive past. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.