Barbara gets off the bus, looks at a time, and sits on a bench. The doctors watch her smoke a cigarette from a window and one of them remarks, “She’s like that. She’ll never show up to work early.” It’s an important line, one that separates from her colleagues. And since Christian Petzold’s Barbara is set in East Germany during the early eighties, that kind of independence has its consequences. Petzold’s film is moody and atmospheric, with remarkably restrained performances. It would work as a thriller if Petzold weren’t so interested in his characters and their specific behavior.
Nina Hoss stars as Barbara, a beautiful but stern doctor who is forced to leave Berlin and work in a provincial hospital. Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), a kind doctor with an open face, takes an interest in her. She rebuffs him, preferring solitude and rebellion through dogged independence. But when the hospital admits a young patient (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), Barbara cannot help but reveal her deep commitment to healing. Despite her commitment to her job, the government still sees Barbara as a subversive. A nasty agent (Rainer Bock) shows up at Barbara’s home whenever she cannot be found for more than an hour. The secret police search through all her things – we know she is hiding something – and even perform a cavity search. Barbara has a plan for escape, but her bottled sympathy might get in the way.
Petzold’s vision of East Germany is beautiful but never pretty. The streets are lonely, and there are long shots where the director follows Barbara biking along empty roads. Wind constantly blows through the trees, and it seems as if the small town is forgotten. The empty space gives Petzold more opportunities to observe Hoss, and it’s just as well since her performance is one of the year’s best. She grows in plausible ways, and every gesture is perfectly calculated. At the climax, Barbara faces a choice similar to what RP McMurphy faces in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, except Hoss communicates through coiled energy, not grand gestures. Given all her restraint, Zehrfeld’s Andre is the audience entry point. He wants to like Barbara in the same way the audience does, and his way of courting her suggests an overwhelming sense of decency. Their conversations about their job are a way for Barbara to let her guard down and develop mutual respect.
The communist Germany setting gives Petzold the opportunity to insert a political message into Barbara, yet that kind of story does not interest him. The secret police and the constant expectation of loyalty are a way for him to drill into the minds of his characters. For Petzold, commitment to East Germany is not nearly as deep as the Hippocratic Oath. Barbara and Andre treat two young patients, both of whom are broken victims, and there is understated suspense when it’s uncertain what will become of them. It’s ultimately handled in an elegant way, and the final moments suggest a transition within Barbara even as she preserves her core. Like a great short story, Barbara is quietly evocative. It will stay with you long after it’s over.