Winner of the Silver Bear prize at last year’s Berlinale and directed by acclaimed German filmmaker Christian Petzold (Yella, Beats Being Dead), Barbara (2012) is a stark yet engrossing drama told against the icy backdrop of the East/West German political divide. Featuring an outstandingly suffocated central performance from the always impressive Nina Hoss, this is an artful, chilly period piece, told with subtlety and restraint through quiet moments of brilliance, rather than heightened emotional sentiment. With it, Petzold once again cements himself as one of contemporary German cinema’s brightest lights.
Set during the summer of 1980 in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), an incarcerated Barbara (Hoss) finds herself confined to living and working as a doctor in a small provincial town – a punishment for her failed attempts to emigrate to the progressive West. Though showing genuine care and concern for her patients, in private Barbara sets out her plan to escape her bonds and be reunited once again with her distant partner. Her only companion at the hospital is the kindly André (Ronald Zehrfeld), a fellow doctor and supervisor, with whom she seems to share a mutual attraction. As the Stasi close in around her, however, Barbara must decide whether to make a break for freedom or endure, in order to help those who need her most.
Petzold regular Hoss is magnificent as the titular heroine – an elegant, birdlike presence that constantly draws the attention of those around her, for better or for worse. Thrust as an alienated outsider into a tightly-knit, oppressively voyeuristic rural community, Barbara adopts the role of a near-silent observer, ever aware of the fragility of her precarious situation. Salvation for our protagonist is there for the taking, but with it comes the elevated risk of detection and consequent imprisonment – from which she may never escape.
Petzold himself also deserves adulation for his own brave choices; perhaps most significant of all, the decision to make his lead character such an island in unto herself, as unwilling to reveal her deepest (darkest?) secrets to even the silently on-looking audience. Compared to a sulking six-year-old by those who have watched her most diligently, Barbara makes no apologies for her apparent icy exterior, knowing that one misguided moment of weakness could put both her own life, and the life of her estranged lover, in extreme danger. Her only confident is the caring, enigmatic André, who also withholds his own set of deep-seated secrets.
Bolstered by several remarkable sequences (a humiliating search of Barbara’s house and person being particularly noteworthy, if difficult to watch) and flourished with a genuinely upsetting subplot involving a teenage extermination camp runaway, Petzold has once again drawn the eye of international audiences, at a time when German cinema is perhaps still lagging behind that of France, Spain and Scandinavia – in terms of foreign market acclaim, at least. Though sadly overlooked for the Best Foreign Language Oscar shortlist, Barbara still functions tremendously well as a suitably frosty look into Germany’s recent tumultuous past.