June 5, 2014
Barbara – Germany, 2012
In the opening scene of Christian Petzold’s fascinating film Barbara, we see a woman named Barbara Wolffe (Nina Hoss) traveling somewhere by bus. She does not appear to be all that familiar with her destination, for her mannerisms and facial expressions resemble those of someone in unfamiliar and perhaps unwelcome surroundings. In these moments, we see the woman in close-up shots, yet a moment later, the camera drifts back. In a long shot, we see Barbara hesitate to go in the direction of the throng of people that also exits the bus, walk almost in circles for a moment, and then sit on a bench and smoke. All of this takes very little screen time, yet in such a short time, Petzold has shown us everything and nothing simultaneously. We have been shown the signs of anti-social behavior, of someone not wanting to be around others, of someone who perhaps relies on nicotine to take the edge off before what could indeed be a rather stressful day. And yet, we know next to nothing about her. We are just like the doctor watching her from the window – intrigued, but utterly in the dark.
The film is set in an East German province quite a journey from Berlin. With its spectacular coastlines and lush country fields, one could be forgiven for expecting a warm film about traditional, kindhearted people. In this film, however, the beauty is on the outside; inside, there is confusion, obsession, regret, and darkness. It is a place where people feel incarcerated even while riding their bicycles along solitary dirt roads, where people wear invisible shackles, and where prying eyes could be lurking just outside one’s living room window.
The film has two central characters: Dr. Barbara Wolffe, who is constrained by real forces, and Dr. Andre Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld), who is carrying the mental scars of a tragic mistake for which he blames himself, thought perhaps unnecessarily. Into their lives step two captivating patients - the first a young troubled woman named Stellla (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) who bonds with Barbara rather quickly and the second a male teenager who Andre becomes convinced is not as healthy as his tests indicate. In scenes involving these patients, we see just how dedicated these doctors are to their profession and just how affected doctors can be by the plights of those who come to them for assistance.
Interspersed with the film’s hospital scenes are scenes that offer insight into Barbara’s chaotic life. There are suggestions of what led to her being assigned to this area and this hospital. There’s also a man that arrives every now and then and makes her quite happy, and their conversations and actions suggest that they are planning to run away together. This notion of flight is repeated throughout the film in clandestine conversations and remarks in which people wonder aloud whether they will allow someone to leave. It is also reflected in the book Barbara chooses to read to Stella during her recovery, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and it is also pertinent to Stella herself, who is trapped by a system that can only lead to her personal ruin. Three other characters abruptly appear from time to time, but their presence fills Barbara with dread – and for good reason.
The film is anchored by three strong performances. The most important of these is Hoss‘s. One of the keys to her performance is her expression, which most of the time remains enigmatic. However, at key moments, she reveals a level of inner pain that is simply staggering. That she does it with so few words only makes her performance all the more impressive. Her performance is matched by Zehrfeld’s, and like Hoss, one of the keys to his performance is his facial expression. Smiles are rare in this film, and each one that does occur is significant and revealing.
The film is set in the 1980s, and anyone with knowledge of what East Germany was like at that time will recognize the significance of this. There are suggestions throughout the film that the characters’ fates are not theirs to control, and we feel the presence of an oppressive, yet hidden force dictating where people can go and what they can do. We therefore understand Barbara’s desire for freedom and comprehend Andre’s sense of dislocation. Neither of them truly wants to be there. It is tempting to assert that they are perhaps where they are meant to be, yet to say this would be to optimistically interpret the film in the same way as one might Michael J. Fox’s film Doc Hollywood. Perhaps the most we can hope for is that they can help each other stay strong until the wall that once divided Germany comes down. (on DVD)
3 and a half stars
*Barbara is in German with English subtitles.