A new career in a new town – Barbara review

Barbara – Starring Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, and Rainer Bock. Directed by Christian Petzold. Rated M. By Simon Miraudo.

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Those Germans are an austere bunch;  a stereotype that won’t be challenged by Christian Petzold‘s bluntly christened Barbara. Where it may wind up surprising audiences is in its warmth and humanity, that will perhaps only reveal itself to viewers willing to chip away at the stony exterior of its titular subject. Set during the early 1980s, it stars Nina Hoss as Barbara, a physician intent on escaping the Soviet-ruled German Democratic Republic. Banished to a small rural town by the Baltic Sea for her insolence, she must adjust to practicing in a small hospital, assisted by friendly, hangdog doctor André Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld).

The good doc falls for Barbara, despite her surrendering nothing even remotely resembling affection, interest, or attraction in his direction. Her sympathies are reserved for the young patients that pass her way; like the lovelorn, suicidal teenager struck suddenly by amnesia, or the pregnant girl who develops meningitis after escaping a prison camp. While a clandestine entry into West Germany is being planned by Barbara’s lover Jörg (Mark Waschke), she must endure spot inspections – both of her modest home and of her even more modest person –  by Officer Schütz (Rainer Bock). Still, as the day of her getaway nears, she begins to find some comfort in her new home, and particularly Andre’s company, if not for the cruel constraints that placed her and so many like her in such a position.

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Barbara was Germany’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards (it missed out on a nomination). You need only look back to their 2006 selection, The Lives of Others (which went on to win the prize, mind you), for a similarly successful tale of dissidents living in the shadow of the Stasi. Both films also attempt to make sympathetic of the secret police too, painting them as victims of a system (admittedly, there were plenty others who relished it). Co-written by Petzold and Harun Farocki, they yield as little as their central character in terms of emotion or cathartic relief. Yet, as our enigmatic lead – performed with economic brevity to a startling effect by Hoss – is subtly softened and her compassion slowly unveiled, the stakes of her plight build accordingly.

Much like Michael Haneke‘s The White Ribbon, it shows us a more pastoral side of Germany than we’re used to – and cinematographer Hans Fromm does a fine job of capturing the village’s windy, woolly coast – though both movies remind us of the ways in which evil needs not a city to fester. It also recalled the fury-inspiring Goodbye from Iran, wherein a woman fails to secure a Visa to leave her nation, and winds up attempting a risky, illegal exit. Barbara is less of a polemic, but that’s likely because it’s a period piece, as opposed to Goodbye, which details a current political struggle. Instead, Petzold’s picture is a well-observed, compelling, and evocative character piece, haunted by the ghosts of Germany’s recent past.

3.5/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews here.

Barbara plays the Perth International Arts Festival from January 28 to February 10, 2013.

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