Barbara: Berlin Film Review

Tightly crafted East German drama delivers strong performances and late rewards.

The East German drama centers on the day-to-day grind of a country doctor, played by Nina Hoss, torn between her desire to flee to the West and her growing attachment to a fellow physician.

A slow-burning Cold War drama that will reward patient viewers with its ultimate emotional payoff, Barbara reps a skillfully mannered, meticulously acted Berlin Competition entry from homeland writer-director Christian Petzold (Yella, Jerichow). Set in a secluded East German village during the summer of 1980, the film portrays the stifling day-to-day grind of a country doctor (Nina Hoss, in a terrifically restrained performance) torn between her desire to flee to the West and her growing attachment to a fellow physician. Further Euro fest bids and distribution are assured, with the possibility of Stateside art house play on a small scale.

After being banished from Berlin for trying to obtain a travel visa, Barbara (Hoss) finds herself isolated in a gloomy Northern town where she works at the local medical clinic. Subject to constant supervision and searches by a menacing GDR officer (Rainer Bock, The White Ribbon) and unable to take so much as an evening stroll without looking over her shoulder, she quickly searches for a way to leave the Eastern bloc once and for all.

But her yearnings are gradually transformed as she grows closer to the clinic’s head doctor, Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), a gentle loner who’s forced to keep tabs on Barbara and whose intentions are never quite clear, though they appear to be good-natured. Their bond is further enhanced by a love of the profession that has them working overtime to care for two troubled patients: a rebellious teenage runaway, Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), and a young man (Jannik Schumann) who attempted suicide for reasons we will learn about later on.

Building a stolid and claustrophobic atmosphere in the early reels, Petzold and regular cinematographer Hans Fromm present Barbara’s newfound existence through a canvas of muted colors and crisp, stationary medium shots as if she were a prisoner serving out an implicit life sentence. The carefully designed decors by K.D. Gruber, filled with outdated cars, appliances and medical equipment, reveal to what extent inhabitants of the East, including intelligent, well-trained doctors, are compelled to scrape by with what they have.

Such details slowly – a tad too slowly in the film’s midsection – retreat to the background as Barbara begins to grow attached to Andre and their patients, and she’s eventually thrown into a dilemma where her need for freedom is challenged by the warmth and gratitude she receives from others. When her West German b.f., Jorg (Mark Waschke) swings by after a few trysts to offer a sure-fire way out, the stage is set for a denouement where Barbara’s conflicting impulses come to a surprising head.

In her fifth collaboration with Petzold, Hoss (who won best actress in Berlin for Yella) offers up a discreet and carefully balanced turn that subdues most emotion until the final minutes, yet she still manages to paint a full portrait of her character’s inner turmoil. This may throw off audiences seeking lively drama, but it’s very much Petzold’s m.o. to have feelings boil beneath the surface until they’re about to blow.

As the stoical Andre, Zehrfeld likewise keeps things to a minimum, and it takes a while for both Barbara and the audience to make him out. Even when he proffers a gruesome story to explain how he wound up exiled to the clinic, it’s never quite clear if he’s telling the truth. In such places like these, even the nice guys can’t be trusted.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Schramm Film Koerner&Weber, ZDF, Arte
Cast: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Rainer Bock, Chrstina Hecke, Claudia Geisler, Peter Weiss, Carolin Haupt
Director-screenwriter: Christian Petzold
Producer: Florian Koerner von Gustorf
Director of photography: Hans Fromm
Production designer: K.D. Gruber
Music: Stefan Will
Costume designer: Anette Guther
Editor: Bettina Bohler
Sales agent: The Match Factory
No rating, 105 minutes