Ordinary people living in extraordinary times
“You shouldn’t keep yourself so separate,” Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss) is advised after her first day at work in a provincial East German hospital. It is 1980 and Europe is divided by a symbolic iron curtain; Germany by a very real wall. Barbara has been relocated from a more prestigious hospital in East Berlin – her crime, applying for an exit visa. Now, her every move is monitored, and her personal liberty regularly violated by the Stasi. The sixth feature from Christian Petzold (he’s also prolific on German television), Barbara is a compelling portrait of repression before the fall of the Berlin Wall. There is emotional veracity in every detail, from the dilapidation of Barbara’s apartment to the hospital’s limited resources. This intimate view of an ordinary woman pivots on the compromises made to live a fulfilling life under such severe conditions.
Christian Petzold looks to the past to make sense of the present
With distance comes increased insight. Of Germany’s current crop of filmmakers, Petzold has the keenest eye on past traumas. He’s one of a loose grouping known as the ‘Berlin School’ whose films investigate the idea of a new German identity in the wake of reunification. Barbara – which won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival – is a prime example of this tendency, along with Petzold’s most recent, highly acclaimed film, Phoenix (2014), which explored German guilt and memory at the end of World War II. Petzold extracts intense drama from moral and political dilemmas without ever being dogmatic or dull.
Watch Barbara trailer:
The aesthetics of surveillance
Barbara has a slow, tense pace. It uses long shots to build a stifling feeling that Barbara is being watched even when we can’t see anyone watching her, implicating us in the act of surveillance. Most powerful, is Petzold’s ability to create a sense that nowhere is safe for her – a neighbour gardening in the middle of the night watches her, a woman on a train turns to catch a glimpse. Every act is a potentially sinister one. Even in her own space, Petzold shoots Barbara from a distance, framed within doorways. It’s a contrast to another German film traversing similar terrain, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006). The Lives of Others almost softened the role of the Stasi, by showing an empathetic intimacy forged between those listening and watching others and those they listened to or watched. But Barbara is a cooler, more clinical dissection of the dynamic, suggesting that only a chasm can develop between people forced to live like this.
Nina Hoss is sublime
Nina Hoss is one of German cinema’s gifts to the world, and here she gives a performance of profound depth, restraint, and melancholy that will stay with you long after the screen goes black. She plays Barbara as a good, moral woman, whose frustrated desire for self-determination sees her treated like a criminal. While Petzold reigns in the film’s emotional currents, with Hoss, there is a sense of immense feeling buried, ready to explode. A scene in which Barbara is stripped and cavity-searched after disappearing for several hours, is unsettling, in part, because Hoss reveals that her tenacity is teetering on a fragile precipice.
Life goes on
Life on the wrong side of the wall was tough. In addition to curtailed physical freedom, access to goods and services was controlled and imperfect. Some saw suicide as their only option for escape. And yet life continued and people made do. Barbara’s concern for the young runaway Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) confirms that acts of human kindness can flourish in even the cruellest conditions. Barbara takes tremendous risks to ensure Stella and her unborn child have a future less grim. While there is a very human toll to all this distrust, Barbara’s relationship with Dr André Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld) – a sympathetic yet compromised man whose honesty she initially doubts – eventually finds a common ground and the possibility of love.
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.