BARBARA. Starring Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Rainer Bock, Jasna Fritzi Bauer, and Mark Waschke. Directed by Christian Petzold. Rated M (Mature themes and sexual references). 101 min.
This is a complex and thoughtful German film that deservedly won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival.
It tells the story of Dr. Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss), who worked at a prestigious hospital in East Germany in the summer of 1980, and who, after incarceration, is banished to a small hospital in the provinces by the Baltic Sea. Almost immediately, we learn that she has offended the authorities, presumably because she applied to leave the communist-run German Democratic Republic. At the rural hospital, she works alongside the doctor-in-charge, Andre Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld), who is also escaping from his past, and is attracted to her. Barbara believes Andre has been ordered to gain intelligence on her, and that he has been “groomed” to do so. She doesn’t tell him that she and her lover in West Germany, Jorg (Mark Waschke), are planning her escape to freedom in the West.
Barbara thinks Andre reports to a Stasi Officer, Klaus Schutz (Rainer Bock), and she socialises hesitantly with him. But in the time they spend working together, she is influenced by Andre’s caring attitude towards others, and Andre reacts similarly to her. Both of them selflessly help patients in need, and Barbara comes to realise that they are bonded by the same sense of humanity. Her kind of humanity, though, is utterly alien to the humiliating body-cavity searches of her that the Stasi frequently do, and Barbara stays committed to try to find freedom in the West.
Barbara comes into contact with a patient, Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), from a local detention centre for juvenile offenders. She is pregnant and for her there is no way out. Stella is taken back to the labour camp from hospital, but escapes, and is injured in the attempt. She manages to find Barbara, who treats her for her injuries and takes her to where there is a person waiting for Barbara in a boat to transport her to Denmark to join her lover. Making an extraordinary sacrifice, Barbara lets the person she is meeting take Stella instead. She saves Stella’s life, and she returns to keep on working by Andre’s side.
There is a compelling moral probity to the actions of Barbara. Her rescue of Stella is a moral necessity for her, despite what her actions might mean in her future life, and the likely continuing surveillance of the Stasi. All the time, she pushes back against the repression of the regime that is cruelly punishing her, and she does so with all the determination she can muster, while caring for those who depend on her.
This is a beautiful film that is wonderfully directed and photographed. It conveys constant tension between its characters and the society in which they are imbedded. As Andre stands in a room looking down on Barbara below, with Klaus Schultz standing next to him, we are led to think she has great cause for concern. It is a film about watching and being observed, with people constantly looking out of windows and into them, and it brilliantly reflects the invasion of the political on the personal.
The movie spurns exhibitionism, and it intelligently combines mystery, drama, and romance. The acting of Hoss and Zehrfeld, as Barbara and Andre, is exceptional - subtle and muted. Everything about the film is cautiously nuanced.
We see or learn that Andre and Barbara are good people living and working in a country that is in transition, and both of them are trapped by its constraints. This is not a tidy, romantic drama, and the ending is ambiguous, but it is a movie of great power. For Barbara, life with Andre will be complicated, especially given what she thinks is his past association with the Stasi, but she has made a life-decision to stay.
This is a moving and commanding film about a resolute woman, whose actions have saved another, if not herself.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out March 7, 2013.