Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Compelling drama goes behind Iron Curtain

  • Print

It takes a lot of confidence for a small German film to face off against the formidable behemoths of Hollywood. Barbara, however, has a secret weapon: It's terrific, as smart, thoughtful and emotionally involving as just about anything that's out there.

Winner of the Berlin Film Festival's Silver Bear for writer-director Christian Petzold and starring a luminous Nina Hoss, Barbara has another advantage: its Soviet-era, behind-the-Iron Curtain setting allows it to investigate the kinds of complex and compelling moral dilemmas endemic to that time and place.

The dynamics of trying to maintain your humanity in the face of the terrifying reach of police state control makes for the highest level of drama. These situations have no parallels in the North American experience, which may be part of the reason we find them so compelling.

Petzold is a subtle and understated director, and Barbara is too good a film to posit a stark choice between an evil East Germany and the paradise to be found on the western side. Every situation, every choice, is personal, and reality is always complex.

The year is 1980 and Barbara opens with the title character getting off a bus in a small town in East Germany where, we soon learn, she has in effect been exiled. A doctor who once worked in a top institution in Berlin, Barbara broke the rules by applying for an exit visa from the Communist-run German Democratic Republic, and as a result has been assigned to an unimpressive pediatric hospital in the provinces.

Watching her from an upstairs window are two men -- Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), the doctor who will be her supervisor, and Klaus Schutz (Rainer Bock), the representative of the Stasi, the GDR secret police with tentacles in every aspect of life.

The humourless, implacable Schutz contemptuously describes Barbara as "sulky," and she does keep to herself both inside the hospital and outside. The reasons for this are quickly made clear: The Stasi has Barbara under surveillance, complete with randomly timed and humiliating physical searches, and she is in fact still hoping to escape to the West for reasons that are as much romantic as political.

The young and affable Andre's connection to this situation is more multi-faceted than it at first seems. Though he initially appears to be simply a friendly guy wanting to help with her transition, Barbara immediately suspects, and correctly so, that he is also a Stasi informant, someone who will be reporting to the secret police about her on a regular basis.

Whatever else Barbara is, she is a committed doctor, invested in her patients' well-being. When a difficult young woman named Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), an inmate in a local work camp, is admitted, Barbara diagnoses her problem as meningitis.

Because Barbara is the only doctor the defiant Stella allows near her, the two develop a relationship, and Barbara even begins to read to Stella from the adventures of another rebel, Mark Twain's Huck Finn.

Also getting increasingly complicated is Barbara's relationship to altruistic fellow doctor Andre. He is clearly attracted to her, and she is impressed by his dedication to medicine, his passion to help his patients no matter how much time and work it takes.

Though Barbara and Andre unavoidably get closer, the one thing she cannot confide in him, for both personal and political reasons, is her continued interest in the West. As events play out, Barbara (played by Hoss with complete mastery) has to make the extremely difficult choice between different kinds of love and caring, and must decide what is finally important in her life.

-- Los Angeles Times

Other voices

Excerpts of reviews of Barbara:

Sometimes, the sun shines and the wind blows fresh and the very elements that make for intense hardship also open a window on intense joy.

-- Rick Groen, Globe and Mail


Hoss is fantastic. Barbara is ice cold at the start, understandably so. Yet Hoss makes her sympathetic.

-- Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic


(Leaves) you drained and horrified.

-- Anthony Lane, New Yorker


Hoss is mesmerizing as a woman who holds it all together to the point of losing herself.

-- Linda Barnard, Toronto Star

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 1, 2013 D4


Updated on Friday, March 1, 2013 at 10:25 AM CST: replaces photo, adds fact box

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Key of Bart - Four Little Games

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Ruth Bonneville Winnipeg Free Press January 18, 2011 Local Standup -
  • May 22, 2012 - 120522  - Westminster United Church photographed Tuesday May 22, 2012 .  John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press

View More Gallery Photos


Are you concerned about the number of homicides so far this year?

View Results

Ads by Google