Sometimes stereotypes about a culture are harmful and mean spirited whereas other times they are the truth. What I have noticed from my watching several German films in a row is that they are restrained to say the least. There is a quiet and wary nature to them. Of course, not all of them, but enough to make it a favoured style of German filmmakers. It is an acquired taste though, I for one, enjoy not being hit over the head with endless dialogue, loudness, and constant movement. There is a certain comfort and realism in the occasional silence.
To say that Christian Petzold’s Barbara is restrained would be an understatement. Long periods of silence of just a piano playing or the wind whistling through the leaves are heard as much as talking.
A more modern period piece, Barbara (Nina Hoss) is about a young female doctor who applies for the required exit visa to leave East Germany in 1980. This is not appreciated and she is punished by being transferred out to a remote country hospital. Figuring if she is far from everything she will not be able to leave. They are wrong as Barbara and her lover from West Germany are planning her escape.
While in her new environment Barbara keeps her head down and to herself. This does not stop her supervisor and fellow surgeon André (Ronald Zehrfeld) from being curious about her. He tries to get closer to her, but Barbara wants to keep her distance. As time goes on this is getting harder and harder as he is very nice to her. She wonders what his motives are. Is he just keeping track of her for the Stasi? Is he falling for her? Barbara is hesitant to trust him even though he does seem sincere.
When the day of her planned escape gets closer Barbara gets more and more confused about what she wants and what she should do. Whatever decision she does make will alter her entire life.
This is not your typical period piece about when Germany was divided into two and the East was a place ruled by the Communist Party. During this time everything was state controlled and the atmosphere was oppressive. Petzold manages to convey the oppression without one frame with a soldier or the Berlin wall that divided East and West Germany. It is all in the atmosphere and tension he creates. The feeling of suspicion is everywhere and so pervasive that at times you feel like you cannot breathe. We do witness the invasive full-body exams that Barbara has to endure because of her applying for the exit visa, that workhouses exist that are really brutal and how different people are doing desperate things to try to get out of East Germany.
Yes, the pace goes about that of a snail. Despite this there is lots of tension built up. You hold your breath wanting to know what Barbara will decide to do, whether her escape plans will be discovered, etc. There are some real old school thriller scenes in the picture. You are not exactly quite sure who is who. Very little back story is given to any of the characters, so you are not sure you can trust them. Trust is an important running theme in Barbara.
This is one woman’s story, but you feel like she represents many East Germans and what they must have been feeling plus going through. The loneliness and forced restraint as a means of self-preservation must have been what many felt. Actress Nina Hoss does the ramrod straight and silence very well. You really see it as real a wall as the one that divides East from West.