Putting her patients first
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, December 21, 2012
In the vein of such recent classics as “The Lives of Others” and “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” Christian Petzold’s “Barbara” re-visits the quiet, everyday tragedies of the Iron Curtain era, when paranoia ran deep and for very good reasons.
This evocative, finely detailed drama opens in 1980, when physician Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss) arrives at a small country pediatric hospital in East Germany. She has been sent from a prestigious post in Berlin by “authorities,” after she had the temerity to request an exit visa.
Stand-offish with her colleagues -- including a friendly, sensitive doctor named Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) -- Barbara comes to life when she’s dealing with her patients, who receive all the warmth and compassion she holds in such careful reserve. And why not? As the random searches and shakedowns of her apartment prove, everyone in Cold War-era East Germany could have been an informant or a spy. But seen through another lens, anyone also could be an anonymous, clandestine hero.
With a combination of methodical, un-inflected storytelling and a spot-on sense of physical and emotional atmosphere, Petzold creates an exceptionally vivid portrait of a time that, in the intervening decades, seems both recent and ancient. Filmed in the lush, windy province of Brandenburg, “Barbara” is often gorgeous to look at, especially as the lithe title character pedals her bike through its forests and country roads. Hoss, recently seen in the harrowing World War II drama “A Woman in Berlin,” exerts a delicate but insistent pull on the camera, drawing it in slowly to reveal a character whose single-minded pursuit gradually gives way to far more complex motivations.
As the story takes on the contours of a thriller, it will be open to debate whether “Barbara” has a happy ending. In this sophisticated, superbly crafted portrayal of grass-roots realpolitik, Petzold leaves viewers with the sense that, when it comes to recent totalitarian history, such either/or questions were rarely clearly answered.
Contains brief sexuality and adult themes. In German with English subtitles.