Christian Petzold’s Cold War drama boasts memorable performances and an engrossing emotional payoff, which justifies its winning the prestigious Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.
As punishment for applying for an exit visa from Communist-run East Germany in 1980, dedicated physician Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss) has been summarily transferred from her prestigious post in Berlin to a small, provincial pediatric hospital in the secluded countryside. Subjected to constant harrassment and humiliating strip-searches by a humorless, intimidating German Democratic Republic (GDR) officer, Klaus Schultz (Rainer Bock), she is even more eager to escape to the West. But then aloof, ever-watchful Barbara develops a bond with the clinic’s affable, altruistic supervising doctor, Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), as they care for two troubled patients: a defiant work-camp runaway, Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), who is pregnant and suffering from meningitis, and a suicidal young man, Angelo (Jannik Schumann), who has jumped off a building. But where informants to the Stasi secret police abound, things are not always as simple and straight-forward as they seem. Barbara’s loyalties are tested when her wealthy West German lover, Jorg (Mark Waschke), concocts an escape plan to Denmark, presenting her with a moral dilemma that propels her to examine whether she can retain her humanity within the context of an oppressive police state.
Nina Hoss is one of Germany’s most accomplished actresses and this is her fifth collaboration with writer/director Christian Petzold, following “Something to Remind Me,” “Wolfsburg,” “Yella” and “Jerichow.” Born in 1960 to parents who had just emigrated from East to West Germany, Petzold is familiar with the territory. “I felt in these people who came from a society that doesn’t exist anymore some reminders of my parents,” he told the New York Times.
In German with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Barbara” is a subtly intriguing, ambiguous 8, filled with suspicion and subterfuge.