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
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