ROB HARMON’S PICKS 11/19/13
The impressive new German political thriller BARBARA depicts life in the former German Democratic Republic (or East Germany), but, whereas most films paint a picture of the Soviet Bloc countries in terms of black-and-white, director Christian Petzold wisely chooses to focus on the bleak and dehumanizing ephemera of everyday life—such as busted wall sockets and a strictly-monitored bathing schedule—and the pure dug-in determination of its inhabitants to survive. This is a landscape—seemingly sparse and quiet—populated by survivors, spiritually wounded and maimed though they may be; where the West is such a capricious wonderland far, far away that two hushed women can stare transfixedly at the pages of a garish, smuggled-in jewelry catalogue; and where even villains—especially villains—have human sides: this society may be air-tight but it is far from airless, permitting some room to breathe.
The story takes place in 1980, a year in which much of the GDR was transfixed upon the Olympic Summer Games in Moscow. Dr. Barbara Wolff (veteran actress Nina Hoss) arrives in the provinces to take up a post at a small pediatric hospital. As it turns out this humble position is a far cry from the fast-track career in medicine that she was once charting in Berlin: Barbara has been officially “relocated” due to the fact that she has requested an exit visa from the GDR, a fall from grace which most in this society of few secrets instantly recognizes and pounces upon. She is sullen and remote, spurning the companionship of her colleagues, particularly the sincere and love-sick Dr. André Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld), which right away earns her the reputation of a cold, big city snob to go on top of her apparent political crimes. Yet it soon becomes clear that Barbara has a secret connection to the West and one which she aims to exploit, this in spite of the watchful eyes of her neighbors and the local Stasi agent’s (Rainer Bock) withering attention, resulting in humiliating searches of her flat and her person at seemingly any time, day or night.
Though Barbara is increasingly drawn into the provincial life of the hospital around her and better learns to see the world from André’s humanistic viewpoint she still retains her ultimate desire to escape to the West… doesn’t she?
Barbara tells the story of the GDR in an intimate, restrained fashion, focusing on the life of the title character and her relationships with those around her, especially the lovelorn André and a hard-luck young patient named Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) for whom she forms a strong and endearing maternal attachment. The performances in the film are understated and powerful, with particular praise going to the gutsy Hoss in the title role. The cinematography, editing, and production design are all first-rate and refreshingly side-step the typical clichés of depicting life under a totalitarian regime in broad strokes and severe gestures, focusing instead on the human-scale sadness of a society divided against itself.
Petzold, who previously gained attention for his drama YELLA (2007) (also starring Hoss), won the Silver Bear as Best Director for Barbara at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival, heralding perhaps a breakthrough for him, as well as his willowy star, Hoss. Barbara succeeds as a meditation on the life-draining paranoia and amnesia inherent to life under such cruel circumstances, but also ultimately reveals the strength which can unexpectedly come in dark times.
For an alternate but equally-moving take on this same subject matter be sure to see (if you have not already) the widely-heralded 2006 GDR-set drama/thriller THE LIVES OF OTHERS.