Director: Christian Petzold
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld
Release Date: 28th September
Barbara is essentially a film centred on trust, or rather, the lack thereof, in communist East Germany during the 1980s. As the title suggests, the main focus is on the mysterious Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss), a doctor who has been banished from a prestigious hospital in Berlin and forced to work in a provincial clinic as a result of her wish to escape to West Germany. Due to her distrustful and suspicious nature, she embodies the prevalent feelings of many Germans at the time. Throughout the film, we witness her inability, or perhaps reluctance, to let her guard down as she is kept under strict surveillance by the Stansi (the secret police of East Germany). Wolff’s uncertainties grow as she suspects that her co-worker, André Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld) is reporting her behaviour to the Stansi.
Hoss captures Barbara’s bitterness and resentment exceptionally well in her controlled facial expressions and severely abrupt manner of speaking, though the film is one of few words. Through her remarkable performance, one can see how the oppressive communist regime full of espionage and secrecy dominated the lives of many in East Germany. The slightest sound from the street outside her apartment causes Barbara to become tense and panicked. Though she immerses herself in her work, she is unwilling to create a rapport with her fellow physicians. She is constantly apprehensive, always cautious that she is being followed or watched. This creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear as the overall film is permeated by a sense of foreboding.
This tension is further exacerbated by the effective minimalist cinematography. Barbara is often isolated in wide shots, surrounded only by the landscape of the bare yet picturesque German town; though we must wonder if she is truly alone. By contrast, the scenes set in her apartment and the hospital feel overbearingly claustrophobic at times due to the use of close-ups. This serves to exaggerate the prevailing sense of unease during the Stansi searches of Barbara’s apartment.
Unfortunately, towards the end of the film the tension has started to slack and the plot seems to drag on, leaving the viewer doubtful that it’s going to finish with a satisfying climax anytime soon. Admittedly, the somewhat ambiguous ending leaves some questions unanswered, though it is fitting for the story and refreshingly unclichéd. It’s a shame, then, that the lull in interesting plot development directly leading up to the film’s closing diminishes its’ impact.
That said, Barbara ultimately succeeds in portraying the bleakness of life in East Germany under Communist rule, though it is not always consistent in capturing the viewer’s attention and intrigue. Visually speaking, it’s wonderfully crafted and realistic throughout. This, combined with stellar performances from both Hoss and Zehrfeld, makes the film worth watching.
In a Nutshell: A well-crafted and emotionally charged drama complemented by superb acting.