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Germany 2012
Directed by
Christian Petzold
105 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
3.5 stars


Synopsis: Barbara (Nina Hoss) is a doctor in East Germany in 1980. After she applies to migrate to the West she is exiled from Berlin to a country hospital where she is constantly spied upon and subjected to harassment by a menacing secret police officer (Rainer Bock). She hopes to escape to the West with her lover, Jorg (Mark Waschke), but the unexpected entrance into her life of patient Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) and a suicidal young man, Mario (Jannik Schumann) threatens her plans.

Winner of the Silver Bear at last year’s Berlin IFF, Barbara is a taut and engaging film, which starts slowly and builds up in a most satisfying manner. Like so many slow-burn films, this requires the viewer’s attention to detail and plenty is provided by the assured hand of the director and his production designers, who deliver up the conditions and sensibility of the depressed and oppressed lives which the citizens of the GDR had to endure, along with, more immediately, the fear and anxiety that haunts Barbara.

Her aloofness, at first very off-putting, becomes progressively understandable in the light of what she is hoping to do. Her kind colleague André, empathetically portrayed by Ronald Zehrfeld, is seemingly affable and open, but also has his secrets and one is nevercompletely sure if he is on Barbara’s side or not. These uncertainties lend a constant air of tension to the film and this only escalates as the plot moves forward.

I started with animosity towards the lead character with her prickly manner and remoteness from others. To Hoss’s credit, her performance is so nuanced that gradually she brought me around to see the levels and layers within Barbara and to implicitly understand what drives her. This lead actress looks wonderful and the camera loves her with her fine cheekbones and natural-looking blonde hair framing a face that is both strong and vulnerable.

There is a thematic thread of dedication to the call of duty and the shared values which seem to draw Andre and Barbara together as doctors. While Barbara’s rendezvous with Jorg are passionate, equally passionate is the self-sacrificial pull towards young Stella, another victim of the totalitarian regime and also to Mario, a young man who has survived a suicide attempt. In this way gradually the plot moves towards a denouement that involves pitting one’s personal desires against one’s sense of commitment to others.

The crisp and glorious cinematography, especially of the archetypal Northern European landscape that contrasts with the austerity of Barbara’s hospital, and the judiciously minimalist score add to the film’s aesthetic pleasures. If the resolution is somewhat sentimental, for the most part Barbara is effective both as a portrait of the dark years of pre-unification Germany and one woman's struggle to do the right thing.




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