When German writer/director Christian Petzold unveiled his new film Barbara at the Berlin Film Festival in February, it was an unassuming gem. The 51-year-old deservedly won the best director prize for the film, his fifth with Nina Hoss, who had also taken out Berlin's best actress prize for Petzold's Yella in 2007. They are quite a team. She had also provided a muted turn in his 2008 film Jerichow as the downtrodden wife of an abusive Turkish immigrant, and as always in Petzold's films, we warmed to a man we initially disliked.
When I was in the former GDR shooting my previous films I experienced a sense of homesickness and I don’t know where it came
In Barbara, it's the protagonist's overseer, Ronald Zehrfeld's André, who we come to love though he's not unlikeable from the beginning. “I cast Ronald because he is not your typical leading man,” Petzold admits of the burly actor who has been likened to a young Russell Crowe. “I wanted to play around with the audience's expectations.”
Barbara can be seen as the third high profile German film with international prospects to look back at the former East. They have all been vastly different. While Wolfgang Becker's Goodbye Lenin! (2003) was highly stylised and comical in tone and featured a star-making turn from Daniel Brühl (he won the best actor audience awards at both the German and European film awards), Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's Oscar-winning The Lives of Others was considerably dour in its depiction of the former East and the Stasi spies who monitored people's lives. It also featured an award-winning performance from Ulrich Mühe, himself an Easterner who had been victimised (as he victimised Martina Gedeck's actress in the film), and who sadly died shortly afterwards.
Of course, in the former East anyone could be a spy, or a dobber, so you never knew who you could trust. Living for three years in Berlin just after the Wall tumbled down, I could still feel the tension there, certainly between the more naïve Ossies (the colloquial and slightly derogative name for East Germans) and the highly cultivated West Germans. Having taught English on Schönhauser Allee in the heart of East Berlin (where my young adult students had never heard of Olivia Newton John and barely knew where Australia was), I'd come to know Easterners at first hand and generally they were a more lively fun-loving bunch than the West Germans.
Petzold in many ways is caught between two worlds as he was born in the East and mostly raised in the West. While in many ways André is the genial kind of Easterner I came to know, Barbara can be viewed as Petzold himself, an inscrutable forward-thinking type who is ultimately torn between the East and West. Interestingly, in Yella Hoss' character had fled her small hometown in former East Germany for a new life in the West, yet Petzold adds a new twist for his protagonist in Barbara.
“When I was in the former GDR shooting my previous films I experienced a sense of homesickness and I don't know where it came,” the director explains. “We spent lot of time in GDR when I was a child and I guess I now feel the need to write stories about collapsing regimes and systems.”
Set in 1980, Barbara follows Hoss' disgraced East Berlin doctor, who, after applying for an exit visa from the GDR, is sent to the Eastern boondocks to work in an antiquated hospital. She keeps herself apart from her prying colleagues and maintains her plan to escape to the West while having clandestine trysts with her West Berlin lover. Gradually, though, she warms to André, a dedicated doctor like herself, and eventually she is forced to make a decision about her fate.
During my time in Berlin, I became friends with former GDR journalists and visited their families in the newly liberated East. There was certainly a fear that they were about to lose something, that bonhomie, even their way of life, and they told stories of how people they knew had risked life and limb to shelter political types in their Socialist past. Of course, over in the West it was every capitalist man for himself. In his film, Petzold is referring to losing your past, and in interviews constantly quotes a line by German writer Anna Seghers (who even gets a mention in Goodbye Lenin!): “When you lose your past you won't have a future.”
Ultimately, Barbara is an affectionate look into Germany's Eastern past. “There were a lot of challenges recreating the look, the mood of the former East, the atmosphere in the early-'80s and how people talked to each other, how alert they were and how mistrustful they were of each other,” notes Petzold. “But we didn't want any Honecker symbols, the hammer and sickle. We weren't interested in depicting the GDR. My focus was on surviving these collapsing systems and institutions and how the people who are left among the rubble can build a lifeboat.
“When we left the GDR in 1975 my dad didn't want to go back there any longer and all my relatives said: 'How could you live in that rigid system?' I wanted to explore the human face of that existence. I wanted to shoot a movie where the production design was warmer, where the autumnal trees have more colour. I wanted to take the historical aspect and show it in a fluid way. In movies, the GDR has always looked so mothballed and stuffy. I needed to have something organic so you can feel the emotions, the mistrust and the big decisions.”
Friday 6 December, 12:00PM on SBS VICELAND (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
Director: Christian Petzold
Starring: Nina Hoss. Ronald Zehrfeld, Rainer Bock
What's it about?
Directed by Christian Petzold (Phoenix, Transit), Barbara stars Nina Hoss as a talented young doctor in 1980s Germany, who has applied for an exit visa from the GDR and, as punishment, has been transferred from her prestigious post in Berlin to a small paediatric hospital in the country. Despite being constantly aware of the shadowy presence of Stasi officers chronicling her every move, she arrives at her new post having already planned a series of secret meetings with her lover (Waschke), with whom she plans to escape to Denmark.