Details: 105 mins, Germany,
Synopsis: Summer, 1980. Barbara (Nina Hoss), a doctor, has applied for an exit visa from the GDR (East Germany). Now, as punishment, she has been transferred from Berlin to a small hospital out in the country, far from everything. Jörg (Mark Waschke), her lover from the West, is already planning her escape. Barbara waits, keeping to herself. Working as a pediatric surgeon under her new boss Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), she is attentive when it comes to the patients, but quite distanced toward her colleagues. Her future, she feels, will begin later. But as the day of her planned escape quickly approaches, Barbara starts to lose control. Over herself, her plans, over love.
A gripping drama about the politics of fulfilment.
Barbara ranks [...] among the best of his work, thanks in no small part to the performance of its star, Nina Hoss.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: A woman arrives in a provincial German town: a doctor from Berlin. She is travelling under some cloud; you realise quickly that she is in a kind of exile—more or less at the same time you understand that this is still a divided Germany. (It is 1980. Her crime, we discover much later, was to apply for an exit visa.)
And make no mistake, we are clearly in the DDR: the flat, drab colours, the dowdy fashions, the general air of suspicion and defeat. Also, there is the undisguised hostility of the hausverwaltung, who arranges for her new tenant’s apartment to be searched twice a week.
But Barbara’s deep air of detachment—so complete, at times, as to seem almost narcotic—hints at some deeper preoccupation. Sure enough, she has a secret lover: a man from the West. Every so often he slips across the border, like a shadow, for a brief, unsatisfying tryst with her in the woods near her new home. He is making preparations, he says, to take to a new life in Denmark. Any day now, the boat will come. And when it does, she must be ready . . .
Writer-director Christian Petzold is perhaps the most gifted of the so-called ‘Berlin School’ of filmmakers—a loose array of auteurs who range from the aridly hermetic (Angela Schanelec), to the acutely observant (Maren Ade), to the surreal and perverse (Ulrich Köhler). All linked by no deeper connection than the city in which most of them live and work, and a shared disdain for the mainstream.
The best-known of the group, the 51-year-old Petzold has crafted a remarkable body of work (11 features, to date, for film and television), remarkable as much for its stylistic consistency as for its thematic preoccupations. His method is precise, his tone coolly cerebral; he favours classical compositions, sleek surfaces, richly detailed soundtracks. And while he occasionally flirts with genre (2008’s Jerichow being a loose adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, and his breakthrough film, 2001’s The State I’m In, a sort-of espionage thriller), he abjures melodramatics, or tidy conclusions.
Often his work discloses a faint sense of the supernatural, intimations of the uncanny that jostle uneasily against the seemingly calm surface of his narratives: what was 2007’s Yella, after all, if not a ghost story, in the vein of Ambrose Bierce’s An Incident at Owl Creek Bridge? The effect is hypnotic, though some have found the flawlessness of Petzold's technique a little stifling. (“It was perfect,” one friend breathed, after Barbara’s premiere at this year’s Berlinale. “So perfect that, after a while, I actually started to hate it a little.”) But Barbara ranks, I think, among the best of his work, thanks in no small part to the performance of its star, Nina Hoss.
Pale and angular, she displays a cool, wary intelligence, much like Petzold’s own—and unsurprisingly, has become his regular lead, the Dietrich to his von Sternberg (or, perhaps more correctly, the Ullmann to his Bergman), starring in five of his films to date. Her gaze—watchful, defiant and afraid—says everything about life in the former Eastern Bloc, and the countless daily compromises—of ambition, of ethics—that it demanded.
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