Set in Communist East Germany in the early 1980s, cold war paranoia is in full view in Christian Petzold’s Barbara, winner of the Silver Berlin Bear for Best Director at the Berlinale. In Barbara, Petzold has fashioned not only a superb character study but a film that illuminates the effects of oppression on the human psyche, an oppression that ended in Germany only with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of East and West many years later. The film shows the East German security apparatus’ (Stasi) use of intimidation and disorientation as tools in operating a system of control and surveillance directed at those suspected of opposing the GDR.
Portrayed by Nina Hoss in a performance of remarkable nuance and authenticity, Barbara, an East Berlin doctor, has been exiled to a small clinic in the provinces after applying for an exit visa to visit her boyfriend in the West. She is a tall, stately, and attractive woman, yet taciturn and distant, her face filled with an indescribable sadness. Trying to serve her patients as best she can, she knows that she is under surveillance by the Stasi, particularly by Officer Klaus Schutz (Rainer Bock), who does not hesitate to conduct unannounced searches of Barbara’s apartment, even her person, and whose presence in her life is all too visible.
Not knowing whom to trust, thinking (perhaps rightly so) that her friends and colleagues may be police informants, Barbara’s aloofness leads her colleagues to give her the nickname of “Berlin” to describe what they think is her big-city attitude. On the job, however, she does not allow her fears to get in the way of her professional responsibilities and her relationship with her patients shows her hidden warmth. Dr. André Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld), a soft-looking, slightly heavy-set doctor, solicits her friendship and offers repeatedly to drive her home but she keeps him at arms length, suspicious of his possible connections.
In spite of this tense atmosphere, Barbara manages to befriend Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), a young patient who escaped from a work camp at Torgau. Correctly diagnosing her with Meningitis, a diagnosis that the other doctors had overlooked, she reads “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to her in the evening, a story of two people on the run. More tension is added when we see Barbara’s surreptitious exchange of black market cigarettes and packets of money with people unknown. In a rapturous meeting with her West German lover Jorg (Mark Waschke) in a secluded forest area, she is given the choice of leaving the country with him, reassured that, because of his circumstances, she would no longer have to work.
Barbara and her friend make plans, but her growing relationship with André and ties to young Stella become complicating factors. André’s own story of how he ended up in the village only adds to her confusion and uncertainty. Barbara is an understated gem that never hits us over the head with its message but leaves no doubt about its implications. While the film depicts the circumstances in a particular country, it transcends its limitations to become a universal experience. A compelling and riveting film, Barbara begins in resignation and ends in transformation.