Cold War Germany has inspired many a depressing movie about humanity’s struggle in the face of oppression. The much-acclaimed Barbara offers something refreshingly different without dumbing-down the stark atmosphere that stays true to the dark era of the 20th century. It has deservedly won over those in the film’s native country, garnering top awards (see its recognition on IMDB).
Will it make the translation in the US? As the film seemed to have missed recognition during awards season stateside, I cannot say that it will, but it should. Cinephiles who should most not miss this film are those who appreciate the compact, concentrated moral tales by the Dardenne brothers (see: ‘The Kid With a Bike’ harnesses potency of simple filmmaking). Using the backdrop of Cold War era East Germany in the year 1980, director Christian Petzold presents a film designed to reveal something much grander than a single person’s struggle for freedom, but a story of sacrifice and grace under oppression.
The film’s titular protagonist (Nina Hoss, who won a Silver Bear for her performance) is a doctor banished from Berlin to the hinterlands after she committed some crime under the communist regime. The drama glazes over her wrongdoing (applying for an exit visa), which befits the film. As we know from history, many of the laws in East Germany were morally suspect and infringed on human rights. Applying for a visa no longer constitutes a criminal act in the eyes of today’s democratic Germany. But it is testament to the film’s strength that, with a few compact scenes, Barbara is established as a morally suspect person who must in the end win the audience over, despite her seemingly trivial moral divergence— a bold move in confident storytelling by Petzold, who co-wrote the script with Harun Farocki.
The first day at work for Barbara is all about establishing her as an outsider. Her enigmatic quality, as she maintains a distance from her landlady and co-workers, serves the film well. When she first appears on screen, the camera maintains an appropriate distance, as citizens in this era and place treated one another with suspicion, above all else. The first shot of her in the film is a high angle through the leaves of treetops. The gaze looks out as if from a window a couple of stories above ground, as two unseen men chatter about her behavior and make assumptions about her personality. We later learn the voyeurs are the man who will be her boss, André (Ronald Zehrfeld) and a fellow named Klaus Schütz (Rainer Bock), a member of the Stasi, police who spied on citizens waiting for them only to slip up, so they might be thrown back in jail.
Though the camera placement of this opening scene will never return in the film, the distant gaze haunts much of the film’s action. Barbara constantly looks over her shoulder while sneaking around to meet a lover who visits her from free West Germany bearing gifts and cash. Meanwhile, Klaus shadows her and pops up more than once sitting in a chair in her own apartment. As a colleague rummages through every nook of the modest dwelling, Klaus only studies Barbara, eyes fixated on catching behavior that might betray her. If that does not seem invasive enough, he does not leave until a female colleague shows up to strip search Barbara.
The stark situation, removed from the usually gray city of Berlin to the bucolic countryside, is punctuated by scenes like the one depicted above. The film maintains the mood without melodramatic angles or music but via consistent images. The desolate road Barbara travels by bicycle on her way to work always appears windswept. Never does a rainy day occur to change the mood. It’s all in the darkness of the situation. A moment given to strangers who turn to stare at Barbara is enough to establish the mood of oppression of East Germany, during this era.
Like Hoss, cinematographer Hans Fromm has been a consistent collaborator with the director. The three of them have made four other films together, and Barbara reveals a clear harmony in their craft that only experience can bring. Fromm maintains a steady, static camera throughout the film. Though there are no attention-grabbing pans, tracking shots or zooms, the images are loaded with irony, depth and color, which might seem an ironic cocktail of visual tones. Though often color-saturated, settings are always simple, yet loaded with information that push the story forward and maintain mood. The film’s mise-en-scène reveals the hospital as ill-equipped to handle some cases, but it also reveals the simplicity of life in the country disrupted by the government’s complicated, heavy-handed need to keep people in line. The colors are so dynamic and brilliant they not only make up for the film’s static camera but also the fact that the director chooses to use only diegetic music for mood enhancement within the scenes. The film almost feels like a Technicolor experience, standing in dramatic irony against a gloomy way of living.
As Barbara creeps around to meet her lover, her supervising doctor always exudes an amiable distant charm and has to work against a natural suspicion to gain her trust. They ultimately bond while taking extra steps to care for separate patients. Trust in these oppressed people is established outside their relationship. Before that, a conversation over a Rembrandt print, (The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp) whose brilliant colors meld into the world of Barbara prophetically, finally begins to thaw the ice between the two of them.
In the end, morality will trump a self-serving need for freedom for our hero who will have to make a crucial decision during the film’s climax, which is handled with as much low-key grace as can be expected by the filmmakers. That may read as rather heavy-handed, but the power of the film to go against melodrama and sentimentality for such a profound statement, reveals the talent of Petzold. Beyond the Cold War era period, this poetic, modest film ultimately reveals that trust is found outside relationships, and we are all more than the sum of the other’s perceptions, a human lesson beyond era and language we should all learn from.
Barbara is Rated PG-13, runs 105 min. and is in German with English subtitles in the US. It opens in my area, South Florida, this Friday, Feb. 8, at many indie theaters. Here they are (the Miami Beach Cinematheque held a preview screening for the purposes of this review):
Miami Beach Cinematheque – Miami Beach, FL
Cosford Cinema – Coral Gables, FL
Living Room Cinema 4 – Boca Raton, FL
Cinema Paradiso – Fort Lauderdale, FL
If you live outside of South Florida, it could very well be playing in your area now, but there are also other playdates planned throughout the year. A full schedule can be found on the film’s official website, here.