Director: Christian Petzold
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Jasna Fritzi Bauer
There is something incredibly fascinating about the division of Germany after WWII, the East & West sides and the politics surrounding the split. And then the 80s, the smuggling, and the eventual destruction of the Berlin Wall. I think it reminds us of Nazi Germany, the ghettos, the trafficking of humans, the secrets, the governments watchdogs. They say history repeats itself, but here there is an almost instantaneous repetition of events, on different scales perhaps but with a sense of irony that cannot be missed. And as with films about the German occupation of Poland, films about the divided post-war country capture our attention & imagination like few other historical events can. Barbara is just one more story of a place & time that seems almost surreal, but one that is done so subtly & so well that it can stand alone as a singularly excellent film.
Barbara is a woman who has fallen from grace. Once a prominent doctor in Berlin, her subversive political views and subsequent incarceration have ruined a promising career. Her talent is too important to be cast aside though, so upon her release she is forcefully relocated to a small provincial town in order to work at the clinic there. She is monitored constantly, subjected to searches of her small apartment and even her own body. She is a political outcast, a rebel, a woman who is labeled as dangerous and will never be free from the oversight of the government. She rides the train or her bicycle to work, returns home, and never participates in life outside of her job, living an uncomfortable life in a place she never imagined would be her home.
But Barbara has secrets that are as unlawful as her opinions. She meets with her lover on occasion, in the forest and in hotels, planning her eventual escape from the region to freedom in another county. The wheels of the plot have been put into motion, but several events complicate matters beyond her control. One is her fellow doctor, Andre. He is handsome, kind, brilliant, a man who makes a positive impact on the lives of all around him. But he is also paid to watch her, to report on her performance & her doings to the authorities that constantly monitor her. And there is also a girl, a young pregnant woman who is a captive of a work camp, a place no better than the concentration camps of WWII. Barbara cannot help but feel a deep compassion for this girl, a desire to save her from the fate that awaits both her & her baby. And as the day of her liberation draws near, both Andre and the girl will become important parts of her life, ones that she cannot easily leave behind.
What an interesting take on a fascinating period in time. Perhaps not everyone is as intrigued by the division of post-war Germany as I am, or even the history of WWII for that matter. But if you are, here is a film that captures that era excellently. But the difference between this film and one like The Lives of Others is the location. This story is set in the countryside, a place of relative peace & beauty, a great contrast for the intense political & social issues that are simultaneously occurring. The other is set in Berlin itself, under the shadow of the wall, deep within the underground movement, the government surveillance, the constant danger. Setting this movie in a place still clinging to the past and still protected somewhat from the modern world was an excellent choice, as it showcases a complex situation in a simple place.
And the story was delivered very well. There was a subtlety and a silence about the film that was enjoyable to watch but gave a dangerous feel. Moments were captured in simplicity but with the knowledge that the undertones were anything but. Again, this was also reflected in the innocence of the town, even while a thrilling story was taking place right under it's nose. That's not to say there was a lot of thrilling action. The threat of harm was ever-present, but there was very little violence or anger on display; most of the emotion in the film was bubbling just under the surface. And that made the story feel that much more realistic & engaging. These were things that actually happened, if not this event specifically then ones that were very similar. And the choices that the characters had to make during the film were ones that had real consequences and were driven by real emotion.
The acting helped to support a well-constructed story and breathed life into incredibly believable characters. Nina Hoss was excellent as Barbara, playing her as an extremely private woman, one whose life was made hell by the constant invasion of her space, her body, and her free will. Her performance was subtle & realistic, keeping her emotions in check for most of the film, only showing them in extreme moments. And Ronald Zehrfeld was as strong as Andre, the attractive & compassionate young doctor. We were left a little unsure as to his character's intentions, his motivations, and his actual feelings. We as an audience had to figure out what was driving him & which parts of his persona were honest, which were a show. And the chemistry between the two was spot on, with trepidatious interest & barely controlled passion, creating a tension that added to the intensity of the plot & crafted a captivating film.
Video: With an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, the video quality is very high. The color is every scene was rich & in wonderful contrast. The picture was sharp, attractive, and detailed. The many outdoors scenes were very well done, with wonderful natural light. The entire film was a pleasure to view.
Audio: The DVD was done in Dolby Digital. The language of the film is German with English subtitles. There are no options for different languages or any other audio choices. The sound quality of the film was good, but with no scenes crafted to highlight its richness. Much of the film was quiet conversation, silent moments, and so the lack of sound was more important.
Extras: There are no extras on the disc.
Recommended. Barbara is a film without mass appeal but with a very solid product to deliver. The history behind the story sets the stage for the drama, and so people who are interested in that era may enjoy this film more than those who are not. The acting holds up on its own and the simplicity of the action is refreshing, but there are times when audiences could become bored. The video quality is great, the audio fine, but the DVD has no extras. This is well-made film, but one that is slow, foreign language, and historically based. Not a movie to excite the majority perhaps, but one that has some excellent qualities that deserve attention.