Review

‘Barbara’ takes a thoughtful look at the personal, political

The Los Angeles TimesFebruary 28, 2013 

Nina Hoss, left, stars as Barbara in Christian Petzold˜s German film, "Barbara."

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  • Barbara

    A

    Cast: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Jasna Fritzi Bauer, Mark Waschke

    Director: Christian Petzold

    Website: adoptfilms.net/barbara

    Length: 1 hour, 45 minutes

    Rating: This film is not rated.

    Theaters

    Chapel Hill: Chelsea.

“Barbara” is one terrific film – smart, thoughtful and emotionally involving.

Winner of the Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear for writer-director Christian Petzold and starring a luminous Nina Hoss, Petzold’s frequent collaborator and one of Germany’s top actresses, “Barbara” has an advantage: Its Soviet-era, behind-the-Iron Curtain setting allows it to investigate the complex and compelling moral dilemmas endemic to that time and place.

As films such as the Oscar-winning “The Lives of Others” have demonstrated, the dynamics of trying to maintain your humanity in the face of the terrifying reach of police state control makes for the highest level of drama. Despite tea party polemics to the contrary, these situations have no parallels in the American experience, which may be part of the reason we find them so compelling.

Petzold, whose previous work, including “Yella” and “Jerichow” was not widely seen in this country, is a subtle director, and “Barbara” is too good a film to posit a stark choice between an evil East Germany and the paradise on the western side. Every situation, every choice, is personal, and reality is always complex.

The year is 1980 and “Barbara” opens with the title character getting off a bus in a small town in East Germany where, we soon learn, she has in effect been exiled. A doctor who once worked in a top institution in Berlin, Barbara broke the rules by applying for an exit visa from the Communist-run German Democratic Republic, and has been assigned to a pediatric hospital in the provinces.

Watching her from an upstairs window as she smokes a cigarette are two men — Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) the doctor who will be her supervisor, and Klaus Schutz (Rainer Bock) the representative of the Stasi, the GDR secret police with tentacles in every aspect of life.

The humorless, implacable Schutz contemptuously describes Barbara as “sulky,” and she does keep to herself both inside the hospital and outside. The reasons for this are quickly made clear: The Stasi has Barbara under almost constant surveillance, complete with randomly timed and humiliating physical searches, and she is in fact still hoping to escape to the West for reasons that are as much romantic as political.

The young and affable Andre initially appears to be simply a friendly guy wanting to help with her transition, but Barbara immediately suspects, correctly so, that he is also a Stasi informant, someone who will be reporting to the secret police about her on a regular basis.

Whatever else Barbara is, she is an effective and committed doctor who is invested in her patients’ well-being. When a difficult young woman named Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), an inmate in a local work camp, is admitted, Barbara immediately diagnoses her problem as meningitis.

Because Barbara is the only doctor the defiant Stella allows near her, the two develop a relationship, and Barbara even begins to read to Stella from the adventures of another rebel, Mark Twain’s Huck Finn.

Also getting increasingly complicated is Barbara’s relationship to altruistic fellow doctor Andre. He is attracted to her, and she is impressed by his dedication to medicine, his passion to help his patients no matter how much time and work it takes.

Though Barbara and Andre unavoidably get closer, the one thing she cannot confide in him, for both personal and political reasons, is her continued interest in the West. As events play out and the screenplay takes unexpected turns, Barbara has to make the extremely difficult choice between different kinds of love and caring, and must decide what is finally important in her life.

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