Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Barbara Movie Review

German director Christian Petzold’s movie Barbara is one of the most paranoid films of recent years. Not in a lunatic, they’re all out to get me way, but in the very real way that political dissidents lived in East Germany during the Cold War. This particular study, which could easily be considered a sister film of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s brilliant The Lives of Others, concerns a female physician forced to give up her prominent post at a hospital in Berlin for a life at a pediatric hospital in the countryside. I’m not sure the reasons for her exile are made explicit in the film, but Wikipedia (not necessarily renowned for its accuracy) says it was because she applied for a visa to leave for the West.


Regardless of the reasons, Barbara is stuck in the middle of nowhere, living in a sub-standard flat on a meager government salary, all while living under the scrutinizing gaze of the Stasi. Her boss and colleague, Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), admits to being required to provide reports on her behavior. What Barbara doesn’t know is whether he works directly with the Stasi or if he’s an unwilling participant in their spying. Such is the nature of living under totalitarianism, or at least the kind imposed by Soviet control in the GDR. They maintained control over the citizenry by the threat, both implicit and explicit, that anyone you know at any given time, could be informing on your opinions. George Orwell foresaw this kind of life, publishing his classic 1984 several months before the establishment of the GDR.

While Barbara is scheming with her West German boyfriend to escape the clutches of her government, she has to keep everything in total secret. Imagine the difficulty of not being able to share any details of your real life with any of the people around you for fear they will turn you in. It’s human nature to be social and share with others. I think we instinctively want to seek others’ approval and so to keep hidden inside you that you take bike rides to neighboring villages to receive from third parties stacks of cash that will help pay for your escape, or that you sometimes meet your boyfriend either in the middle of the forest or secretly in a hotel for Western tourists, must be some special kind of internal torture itself. And so Barbara keeps herself as isolated and withdrawn as possible. She offers perfunctory greetings that can hardly even be called pleasantries when she arrives at work or in the lunch cafeteria. But slowly over the course of the film, her motivations become clearer even as we don’t necessarily draw the connections as the various scenes play out.

Nina Hoss plays Barbara stoically, almost stone cold and bereft of emotion. She can’t allow her face to betray her, even as the Stasi officer Schütz (Rainer Bock) searchers her home, which includes humiliating body cavity searches. Barbara’s guard is always up, a fact conveyed by Hoss’s arms folded across her body through most of the film. Her body language rarely changes, but the moments when it does become revealing. If Andre is a Stasi plant, he is the polar opposite of the clinical Schütz, what with his mussed hair, grizzled beard, and plump frame. He is made to look inviting, perhaps a little too much so. His explanation for his presence in a backwater hospital is either a devastating personal reality for him, or a too clever cover story. We don’t ever really discover the truth, but that’s sort of beside the point.

Petzold’s direction is about as clinical as that Stasi officer whose presence is a thorn in Barbara’s side. His spare use of close-ups and many long static shots make time feel almost as if it’s standing still. You get a sense that life in these conditions is something like a frozen hell. It’s a life with no linear motion either forward or back, just a series of events that may or may not lead to something significant.

And because it’s a narrative film of course it does. The big X factor in the story is the arrival a pregnant teenager who has recently escaped from a hard labor camp for youths. How these elements play out I will not reveal, except to say that it makes all the waiting and effort on the part of the viewer worth it. I am left with some questions on character motivations in the end as my viewing partner and I had differing opinions. But I would guess that closer study of the psychological elements of the characters will suggest there’s more than meets the eyes and even the instincts in this very beautifully constructed and coolly chilling tale. 

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