In Christian Petzold’s pensive drama Barbara, the wind that scours the countryside is as much of a character as the eponymous female doctor, banished to a rural hospital after expressing her wish to leave East Germany. As Barbara (Nina Hoss) navigates country lanes on her bicycle amid grass bent sideways by gusts, the reedy actress looks as if she might be blown off the screen herself — the landscape often expresses vulnerabilities the characters cannot, either out of reticence or fear.
Like Germany at the time — the film is set in 1980, although few chronological markers are given — Hoss is divided, her inner self walled off from any who would attempt to come close. From the first scene, when her new colleagues gaze at her from a distance as she enjoys a solitary cigarette, Barbara is constantly under surveillance — mostly by the brutal Stasi, who violate her with regular cavity searches, although everyone, from colleague to patient, is a potential spy. Even if she weren’t planning to cross the Wall to be with her West German lover, with whom she stages furtive meetings in the woods, she’d be a suspect anyway. Everyone is.
Barbara is Hoss’ fifth film with Petzold, and the movie rests on the depth and subtlety of their working relationship. Petzold trusts the actress to allow her character’s humanity to seep through, even as she shirks from human contact; in turn, Hoss trusts the director to capture minute, almost imperceptible gradations of feeling. There’s a persistent streak of melodrama at Barbara’s core that amounts to a reprise of a World War II Hollywood classic, but it’s melodrama through the wrong end of a telescope, without overbearing music or portentous dialogue. Petzold handles personal, formal and political concerns in such harmony that it’s difficult, and not especially desirable, to separate one from the next. The movie is dense but never feels arduous — assembled with easy mastery, it is engrossing throughout.
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