Germany’s submission for Best Foreign Film for 2012 did not make the Academy’s short list, but Barbara is a superb film about life in the oppressive regime that was “East Germany”.
“Barbara” (Nina Hoss) is a female doctor working at a prestigious hospital in Berlin when she applies for an exit visa. She isn’t making any political statement or working against the Communist government. She simply wants to go to West Germany to live with and marry her boyfriend “Jorg” (Mark Waschke).
The result of her application is that she’s forced out of her job and out of the capital city itself. She winds up at a clinic in the provinces where her new boss, “Dr. Andre Reiser” (Ronald Zehrfeld), must report on her activities to the Stasi (East Germany’s “Secret Police”).
Barbara appears to be stand-offish from the other doctors, but her skills and superior bedside manner soon has Andre trying to warm up to her. He is clearly conflicted over having to keep tabs on her for the Stasi and his growing admiration for her abilities. When “Stella” (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), a young girl from a work camp is brought in, Andre is convinced she is faking illness as she’s done before. Barbara examines her and discovers that Andre is wrong and Stella is quite ill. Barbara spends time with Stella, reading to her and keeping her calm.
When Barbara drops out of sight for a few hours to visit her boyfriend secretly at a tourist hotel, the repercussions are a search of every item in her apartment, including her body cavities. The indignity of it is evident on her face and a reminder of her status with the Stasi. However, plans are in the wind. Jorg has arranged for her to escape to the West. Meanwhile, Stella has returned to the work farm and staged her own escape. Will one, both or neither end up escaping?
Writer/director Petzold is telling a story about how an oppressive regime can grind up a person, rather than focusing on the regime itself. Barbara is his sixth collaboration with Nina Hoss and their familiarity as director and actress adds to the quality of this movie. The slow pacing is deliberate and the lack of any ‘edge of your seat tension’ does not detract from this wonderful film. Barbara wants what we all want, to live happily ever after, but in East Germany in 1980 that was almost impossible. Hoss gives an excellent performance as a woman who is a caring physician but has to build a shell to keep others away. Trusting anyone is just too dangerous for Barbara.
But you can trust that Barbara is a high-quality film well worth seeing.