East German doctors strive for freedom, conscience in thoughtful ‘Barbara’
Grand heroic dramas are often made about the quest for freedom in a time and place of political repression. At first glance, it looks like the German film, Barbara, is going to be one of them. Set in the last decade under Communist rule in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the story concerns a sophisticated female doctor from Berlin banished to a backwoods country hospital for political reasons. But as it plays out, this quiet, personal, deftly nuanced little drama turns into something far more affecting than the expected political thriller.
Directed by Christian Petzold, from a script he co-wrote with Harun Farocki, Barbara is an adroit character drama that takes the time to involve the viewer with the lives onscreen. At its center is eponymous heroine, Barbara (Nina Hoss), a reserved, strong-willed doctor from Berlin, hovering around age 40, and understandably wary after friction with the party has landed her briefly in prison. It’s 1980, and she’s now been reassigned to a remote, woodsy province on the outskirts of East Germany and a staff position at the local medical clinic.
The job comes with a state-approved flat in a peeling old stucco building under the watchful eye of a landlady reminiscent of Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein. Surprise visits from the local secret police, or Stasi, are also part of the deal; they frequently drop in to ransack Barbara’s things and demand a cavity search of her person, just to keep her off-guard. It’s no wonder she’s seen as aloof by the rest of the hospital staff, who view her as a snooty city girl who considers herself above them all.
It soon evolves that Barbara has a plan. By stealth and cunning, she’s hidden a secret cache of deutschmarks from the authorities; she also manages the occasional tryst with a lover high-ranking enough to provide her with the fancy cigarettes she chain-smokes and the funds to escape to the West by clandestine means. As her plan takes shape, she’s ever more on edge, both at the clinic and in her residential neighborhood, where anyone might be spying on her and reporting to the Stasi police.
Barbara is especially wary of initial attempts by the rumpled head of the clinic, Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), to befriend her; she prefers to keep her distance, emotionally. But in spite of herself, she starts to bond with the young patient Stella (a brash, vulnerable and engaging Jasna Fritzi Bauer), a rebellious teenage girl who keeps running away from the work camps. Another patient is a youth who has attempted suicide and needs round-the-clock watching. With these smaller dramas playing out around her, Barbara’s perspective on her lover, on Andre, and even on the chief Stasi officer (Rainer Bock), begins to alter, and the choice she faces becomes far more complex.
A veteran German actress not well-known in the States, Hoss gives a formidable performance in the title role. Her Barbara is bold, intelligent and competent, whether bombing around town on her bicycle or making her rounds at the clinic; we can see the opposite impulses to trust and be wary duking it out in her every action, as she gauges how much compassion she can safely dole out on the job and in her personal life while maintaining her dangerous secrets.
Zehrfeld is also excellent as clinic chief Andre, a gentle, philosophical fellow despite his shaggy bear demeanor. Like Barbara, he has a painful reason for being where he is, but he’s chosen to forge a different path through the minefield of past and present in search of a kind of redemption.
There’s a moment in the film when Andre shows Barbara a print of a Rembrandt painting on the wall in his office. It shows a doctor and his students all gathered around a teaching corpse, so intent on the letter of the ancient anatomy book the doctor holds that none of them realize they’ve just sewn the wrong hand to the corpse’s arm. Like the painting, Barbara is a cautionary tale about slavish devotion to a rigid and uncompromising set of values that blind one to a larger, more accurate view of the human condition.
★★★ (out of four)
With Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, and Jasna Fritzi Bauer.
Written by Christian Petzold and Harun Farocki.
Directed by Christian Petzold. An Adopt Films release.
Rated PG-13. 105 minutes.
Opens Friday, March 15 at The Nick.