Barbara | Movie review
In Christian Petzold’s provocatively spare thriller, a doctor acclimates to life in the East German countryside.
One of the figureheads of a group of German directors known as the Berlin School, Christian Petzold has made a trademark of understatement. Jerichow, his 2008 rewrite of The Postman Always Rings Twice, was so determinedly anti-dramatic that it removed the murder. Now, in Barbara, Petzold renders Communist oppression in a provocatively muted manner. Because of a title card added since the Toronto film fest, the setting—East Germany, 1980—is established up front. The plot originally emerged more subtly. The eponymous heroine, a doctor (Petzold’s fierce muse, Nina Hoss), has been relocated to the countryside for perceived dissident activities. Put up in a dump of an apartment by the authorities, she lives under constant surveillance by the Stasi. Her lover (Mark Waschke) sneaks in from West Germany to deliver contraband and engage in furtive hookups. They talk about defecting. While it’s not quite Stockholm syndrome, Barbara finds her professional responsibilities and moral compass at odds with her rebellious instincts.
Any Petzold film hinges on questions of pacing and of how much withholding is too much. Barbara is perhaps slow to get going, yet the increasingly urgent second half, with Hoss called on to mask her motivations with stoic expressions and a general air of impervious disdain, mines unlikely suspense from such small touches as the way the character dangles a cigarette. Both Barbara and the film retain a wisp of skepticism about her closest colleague (Ronald Zehrfeld), a potential romantic interest who harbors secrets of his own. And in contrast with most depictions of the Soviet bloc, Petzold’s crypto-thriller is shot with an uninflected beauty. Burnished interiors have a gorgeous shabbiness that only heightens the perversity of the director’s departure from genre conventions.