If the German film Barbara, which opens at Hillcrest Cinemas on Friday, March 8, were a Hollywood picture, you’d have heard about it already. Hell, you probably would have seen it represented at last week’s middling Oscars ceremony, and with good cause. The writing is tight and smart, and the acting is spellbinding. It’s precisely the kind of small, intense drama you wish they’d make more of in the United States.
Of course, the movie’s subject matter is pretty specific to its country of origin. Barbara is set in East Germany prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and its protagonist is played by Nina Hoss, one of Germany’s top actresses. She’s a former big-city doctor, who, we learn early on, has been exiled to a small clinic in the sticks, and she’s not happy about it. Her crime? She dared to apply for an exit visa, and now the Stasi, the East German secret police, are watching her around the clock, suspicious that she’s determined to reunite with her West German lover on the other side of the wall.
They have good reason to be suspicious, because that’s exactly what Barbara hopes to do. She, in turn, is suspicious of everyone around her. She’s cold and prickly, and her standoffishness makes things tricky, because there are very real people with whom she has to deal. Foremost among them is André (Ronald Zehrfeld), the clinic’s chief physician. He’s a gentle bear of a man, a dedicated doctor and, as he makes it clear early on, an informant for the Stasi.
Zehrfeld is a wonderfully charismatic actor, despite his constantly exhausted, pained look, and this is a terrific role for him. Barbara is never sure whether she can actually trust André, and neither are we. At times, in fact, it seems as though André isn’t totally sure, either. But there’s real chemistry between them, even though she’s in love with someone else, and his dedication to his patients and his practice begins to melt that icy veneer of hers, just a bit.
Then there’s Stella (Jasni Fritzi Bauer), the teenage girl who’s repeatedly run away from the labor camp where she lives. Usually, when she gets to the clinic, she’s faking illness, but this time she’s really sick, and it’s Barbara who catches it. It’s clear that in this rebellious girl, who’s had everything usurped by the state, Barbara sees something of herself. At the same time, Barbara’s the only person who ever treats Stella with an ounce of kindness or respect.
All of this complicates matters. Barbara’s professional obligations are making it harder to leave and forcing her to determine what’s truly important, a decision that’s eventually thrust upon her by an unanticipated event. Throughout it all—the hard breaks, the awful interrogations, the utter unpleasantness of living in what Stella refers to as a “shit country”— Hoss makes Barbara a truly fascinating character. She’s not terribly likable, but it’s not her fault; she’s become justifiably bitter because of the way her country has treated her. As she starts to warm up to the people around her, the character truly blossoms, becoming warm and radiant, slowly tearing down the wall she’s built around herself. It’s a terrific performance.
Christian Petzold’s film has a great deal in common with The Lives of Others, the movie that won the Best Foreign Language Oscar a few years ago. The dehumanization and paranoia of that closed society is painful to experience in both cases, and both show a side of the Stasi agents we don’t expect to see. That was a huge part of The Lives of Others, but it’s much more subtle and unexpected in Barbara, and when it comes along, it’s like a hammer, one that actually gives the film back a measure of humanity that we, and Barbara herself, thought was lost.