Film Review: Barbara

An intimate meditation on freedom set in East Germany at the end of the Cold War, but this time, it’s personal.

The plot is too neat, though it makes for a well-wrought story, and viewers must suspend disbelief regarding certain improbabilities, but Christian Petzold’s Barbara has much to recommend it, chiefly the writer-director’s skillful reversal of expectations: The movie begins as political thriller and ends as endearing love story, a neat narrative finesse. The leads—Nina Hoss as Barbara, a disaffected East German doctor, and Ronald Zehrfeld as André, her defeated colleague—are convincing, attractive and affecting, and the film’s mise-en-scène, evoking a provincial town somewhere on the Baltic coast at the end of the Cold War, offers an unusual window into that time and place. The entire production works against type, juxtaposing a self-absorbed heroine determined to secure her freedom with an altruistic antihero who appears to collaborate with the oppressors. We root for them both despite themselves.

Barbara has been banished from her post at a prestigious Berlin hospital to an antiquated and understaffed clinic after applying for an exit visa from the totalitarian German Democratic Republic. Even as she arrives for duty, she is plotting to escape by sea to Denmark, where she hopes to reunite with her lover, Jörg, a West German businessman, who visits her clandestinely for hurried trysts and funnels money to her through the underground.

André attempts to befriend her, drawn as much by her blatant disdain for authority as her cold beauty and professional skill, but Barbara suspects him, rightly, of informing the authorities of her comings and goings. André makes no pretense about his obligation to report on her, for he too has been compromised because of a past mistake not his fault, but for which he accepts responsibility. A devoted doctor as well as world-weary realist, he strives to make the best of a bad situation, concentrating on his patients and incrementally improving the clinic rather than railing against circumstances he cannot change.

Events conspire, conveniently, to alter Barbara’s plans and, eventually, her understanding of first things. A young woman is brought to the clinic suffering from meningitis contracted from a tick bite—she has been hiding in the woods after fleeing a work camp. Then a young man is admitted after attempting suicide. Both have been driven to extremes by the torment of unrequited love as well as the intrusions of the government, and Barbara and André take personal interest in the cases. It turns out that their concern for their patients foreshadows their own relationships, with each other and with the state.

Barbara will be compared to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, which won the 2006 Oscar for best foreign-language film, but Petzold is more interested in individual drama than ideology, in personal choices and consequences than politics and history. To put it another way, he’s an actors’ director: To say he coaxes nuanced performances from Hoss and Zehrfeld puts the cliché to good use. Production designer K.D. Gruber provides the ideal setting for their work, the dreariness we associate with the GDR relieved by the windswept landscapes that suggest the changes about to blow through Germany…and Barbara.