Directed by Christian Petzold (Phoenix), 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 pediatric 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 (Mark Waschke), with whom she plans to escape to Denmark.
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.)
Barbara ranks [...] among the best of his work, thanks in no small part to the performance of its star, Nina Hoss.
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.