The year is 1980, the setting is rural East Germany and the mood is disquietingly repressive. But in his new film Barbara, writer/director Christian Petzold aims to do more than just paint a general portrait of life in Communist Germany. By focusing on the titular physician protagonist (a typically understated Nina Hoss), who strives to keep her dignity intact under the imperious surveillance of the Stasi, Petzold deftly shifts the stark political climate to the back seat in order to explore the more emotionally resonant vicissitudes of its characters. By doing so, Barbara excels in making the historical feel almost ahistorical.
The film’s opening establishes Barbara’s demotion from the prestigious Charité hospital in East Berlin to working in an ill-equipped rural hospital—all because she audaciously requested to leave the German Democratic Republic. Barbara naturally hates the peace and quiet of this Communist rural nowhere-land—but more so, she despises the near-panoptic Stasi that force her to strip- and cavity searches with perverse regularity. Barbara does occasionally get to taste West German freedom in the form of hosiery, cigarettes and sexual intercourse with her West-Germany-based lover Jörg (Mark Waschke), who visits her in deserted forests and hotels and helps plan for her escape via the nearby Baltic Sea. Despite the sea’s bucolic fresh air, there is little freedom to be found in Barbara’s day-to-day existence outside of that promise of a new life foreseeable within the crashing sea tides. Though she doesn’t say much, Barbara’s contempt for her relocation, the Stasi and her supervisor Dr. André Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld) can easily be read in her sullen countenance (“If she were six years old you’d call her sulky,” the Stasi officer tells Reiser).
Much of Petzold’s film closely observes the relationship that develops between Barbara and Reiser. Within such an environment of paranoia, naturally it takes a long time before Barbara even begins to lower her guard around Reiser; after all, who would trust a man forced to report her daily goings-on to the Stasi? But Reiser is quick to lose his suspicions of Barbara, as she proves to be not only a diligent staffer but a compassionate doctor who bravely tests Reiser’s authority when he gives the wrong diagnosis to a young runaway named Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer). Barbara exudes motherly affection for Stella, a fact that Reiser himself can’t help but notice.
Over time, Barbara experiences the slow-burning but inevitable process of settling into rural life: she begins to the play the piano provided for her in her apartment, for which she initially and rudely refused Reiser’s help in tuning; her role in the hospital staff becomes increasingly valuable, as evidenced by her Sherlock Holmes-like discovery of a patient’s mysterious inability to feel emotion; and, perhaps most disconcerting of all to Barbara, she begins to grow indifferent towards the material charms of West Germany. Despite all that, she still prepares to take the dangerous route out of Germany when the time comes. The results of that escape are perhaps too neat a plot turn given the way Petzold has so successfully created an environment of deadening stasis amidst the many narrative and emotional threads he juggles. However, the wordless final scene—in which Barbara quietly faces the long-term consequences of her actions—manages to carry a significant emotional impact nevertheless; her eyes—still swimming in a complex Baltic sea of emotions—are much easier to read this time around.
All of this may make Barbara sound like an oppressively somber glimpse into Germany’s Communist past. Yet, watching the film for the first time at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year among a mostly native German audience, I was surprised to see how often certain scenes provoked sardonic chuckles. Barbara’s initial guardedness toward Reiser offers up some welcome moments of black humor; her caustic retort to Reiser that she got a bicycle for her work commute in response to his frequent carpool offers is a case in point. Yet Petzold also tempers Barbara’s standoffishness with bits of slight humor at her expense as well. Take for example, the scene in which she schizophrenically hawks her window with the arrival of an unknown car at her doorstep; her cautious and rude greeting for the arrival of this stranger—who ends up being a harmless piano tuner—is a darkly funny reminder of the way paranoia can get the best of us, especially in an environment dominated by it. By focusing so intensely on the personal rather than the historical or political, Barbara ends up saying much more about life in East Germany in 1980 than a mere history lesson or political tract would—and does it in a more deeply poignant manner as well.