Those who were born after the reunification of Germany might be unaware of how ugly the era of divided Germany was. The Soviet-controlled German Democratic Republic (or known informally as East Germany) treated its citizens like many of the Cold War-era Soviet regimes did, and escaping from East to West Germany was a difficult, if not impossible, prospect. It also isn’t an era that has been explored in many films, perhaps because the preceding dark era in Germany’s history, Nazi Germany, has been covered extensively in film. If Barbara is any indication, there is a wealth of engaging stories that Cold War-era Germany has to offer.
Barbara is set in East Germany in 1980. Before the events of the film the title character (Nina Hoss), who is a doctor, is punished for officially requesting to leave East Germany by being transferred from The Charité, a prestigious medical facility in East Berlin, to a small children’s hospital on the coast of the Baltic Sea. Officer Klaus Schütz (Rainer Bock) of the Stasi, the brutal security force of East Germany, constantly harass Barbara by performing invasive searches of her home and body in order to find out information about her. Part of this strategy involves asking the head physician at Barbara’s hospital, Dr. Andre Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld), to get close to Barbara in order to unearth her secrets. The beautiful Barbara is cold to everyone around her — she trusts no one — and seeing that she plans to escape and join her lover, Jörg (Mark Waschke), in West Germany, she sees no reason to bother making personal connections, even with her co-workers. She even refuses to come to work a single minute early, either to socialize or to give East Germany any more of her time than is required. But Barbara’s tough exterior begins to show cracks when a teenage girl from the East German work camps named Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) is brought to the the hospital and Andre begins to see that Barbara isn’t as standoffish as he was led to believe.
The film is fascinating as a character study of Barbara, who detaches herself from personal relationships because she has no desire to remain in East Germany and because she does not know who she can trust. It seems like an awful way to live one’s life, and this is conveyed when we see Barbara’s beautiful smile whenever she encounters Jörg during their secret liaisons. But she is a far more complex character than this, because while Barbara is forced to work at the children’s hospital its becomes clear how fulfilling her jobs is for her and how much she cares for her patients — so much so that when Jörg points out that she will never have to work again after she defects because he is rich, Barbara’s silent reaction is not one of celebration.
While Hoss is spellbinding as Barbara, Zehrfeld is nearly as effective as Andre. There’s a great scene when the two characters are riding bikes together in which Barbara stares straight ahead and Andre finds it difficult to keep his eyes on the road because he keeps taking glances at Barbara. He tries so hard to get close to her, and while it seems it is initially only because Schütz asked him to Andre’s body language tells a different story. In that sense, so much of Barbara is about body language — to the point that by the end of the film subtitles aren’t even necessary.
Director Christian Petzold, who also wrote the screenplay, paints a portrait of life in the countryside of East Germany as both serene and horrific. The landscapes are beautiful, but that runs in contrast to the way Barbara and the other citizens are treated by government officials. So much of their lives are conducted in secret, and the plot twists leading to the hours before Barbara’s escape make it unpredictable until the final moments.
Barbara might be lost on viewers who don’t have a basic grasp of the history of Cold War-era Germany, but there’s plenty of drama here for anyone who would enjoy a film about a historical period that has remained mostly unexplored in film.
RATING: A fascinating character study about an ugly era in European history (8/10).