Christian Petzold’s Barbara is an elegantly photographed, but fidgety-paced character drama. As an undercurrent of East/West tension ripples below the surface Petzold’s understated direction creates a suffocating atmosphere influenced by conflicting emotion, and impressive performances from Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfield. Barbara is a film that moves slow and requires attentiveness. The payoff, which is admittedly moving, doesn’t quite reward the particular build-up. Set in East Germany, Barbara tells the story of a doctor (Hoss, Yella) who has been exiled from Berlin to a country hospital after requesting an exit visa. As she warily acquaints herself with her new apartment and colleagues - including her friendly boss Andre (Zehrfield, In the Face of the Crime) - Barbara is secretly plotting her escape with her West lover, Jorg (Mark Waschke). Unannounced visits by the Stasi, who thoroughly conduct shakedowns of her apartment and person for contraband, keep Barbara on edge, and result in her being standoffish and suspicious of her colleagues. Barbara reveals her skills as a pediatric surgeon, showing compassion towards her young patients. Barbara morphs into a thriller of sorts, clouding Andre’s motivations for extending such kindness and sensitivity, and having found unexpected responsibility and purpose, Barbara’s specific agenda.
What I found particularly interesting were the differences between the two men in Barbara’s life – Jorg, who arranges discreet meetings and slips her money, and the caring and understanding Andre – and how they their affections influence Barbara. For Jorg, each of their meetings immediately leads to sex, and seems to have little emotional involvement beyond his promises of escape. He leaves her alone in a hotel room on one occasion while he attends a meeting downstairs.
The relationship between Barbara and Andre is a professional one first and foremost, but it is also one based on Andre’s growing respect for Barbara’s skills and admiration for her strength of character, and Barbara’s gradual relinquishing of her coldness and distance. They find mutual comfort in each other’s presence. The delight on Andre’s face when she accepts his invitation to join him for dinner is a powerful moment.
There is an underlying tension to their relationship. Has Andre fallen in love with her or is he trying to learn as much about her so he has intelligence to report to the Stasi, who we know have approached him? When he initially tries to win Barbara’s trust, she keeps her distance, but his consistent kindness and evident attraction begins to convince Barbara that he may care more about her than his mission and may be willing to risk prosecution to cover for her.
The film’s constantly windswept location, and the accentuation of Barbara’s isolation as she cycles through the town’s surrounding forests, adds to the tension. The staging of each sequence, which includes lengthy stationary takes and a blend of long shots and lingering close-ups, ensures the story is never in a rush.
Political oppression, character relations, carefully suppressed agendas, and gradual change of heart are at the fore here and Petzold manages to convey all this with a sense of style and minimal dialogue.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Barbara is released in cinemas March 7, through Madman Films.