“Barbara” – Honor Among Barbarians


Barbara (Christian Petzold, 2012)

I watched this on 2/17/13 at Cinema Sundays at the Charles, where it was presented by Beatriz Bufrahi, Instructor, Video and Digital Imaging, Baltimore School for the Arts. It’s too bad I forgot to write my review before the film opened this past Friday (2/22/13) in Baltimore, but here that review is now.

This was the German submission for the 2013 Academy Awards, though it did not make the shortlist of 9 films from which the 5 nominees were selected. It is a very good – if not 100% great – piece of filmmaking.

Barbara takes place in 1980 – when Germany was divided between the Communist East (the “Deutsche Demokratische Republik,” or DDR) and Capitalist West (the “Bundesrepublik Deutschland,” or BRD) – and follows the story of an East German doctor, Barbara (Nina Hoss), who is sent away from East Berlin to a provincial town as punishment for applying to leave the country. She begins working at the local hospital, where she remains aloof from all but the main doctor, André (Ronald Zehrfeld), though she suspects him, not incorrectly, of informing on her to the local secret police. Since almost everyone informed on everyone in East Germany, whatever André may or may not be telling Klaus (Rainer Bock), the Stasi (secret police) representative (Rainer Bock), does not make him a bad guy. In fact, he is a compassionate, hard-working medical professional, struggling to do what he can with little resources, who may, himself, have done something illegal (in the eyes of the State) to warrant his own exile.

Little by little, a friendship of sorts develops between Barbara and André, in spite of the former making covert plans to escape to the West – with the help of her West German lover – and in spite of periodic home and body searches by Klaus and his team. When the time comes for Barbara to leave, she suddenly finds herself confronted with an ethical dilemma: a patient – Stella (Jasna Frizti Bauer) – she has earlier cared for reappears, in far greater need of saving than Barbara, herself. The choice Barbara must make is a heartbreaking one, yet she knows she can make no other one. Making that decision, she is finally truly free.

The acting in Barbara is excellent. Nina Hoss (A Woman in Berlin) is entirely believable as a woman worn down by the bleak existence offered to her by the failing Communist State (the “Barbarians” of my blog entry title). She is still beautiful, but the years of smoking (there is so much smoking in this film!) and depressive existence are taking their toll. Ronald Zehrfeld is almost too nice as her potential romantic partner, but still a fine charismatic on-screen presence. Their gentle duet is lovely to watch. I also loved the Production Design. The dingy interiors, contrasted with almost-lush and green exteriors, is something that will be familiar to anyone who spent time in the Soviet Union or any Eastern Bloc country. The burned outlet in Barbara’s apartment is an especially nice touch.

The script is overall strong, though some might question the decision that Barbara makes at the end. Ultimately, I believe that the film is about finding yourself through work and action, rather than through escape. Christian Petzold does not shy away from the unpleasantness that was life in the DDR, but also questions the panacea that life in the West might be for Barbara. Her boyfriend wants her to stop working once she escapes, yet she is a fine doctor. Perhaps she can do more good by staying where they need her. Early in the film, when Barbara scornfully explains to André that she is being punished for wanting to leave the peasants and workers who financed her education (the State’s line), and she has been told that she owes them her service, André replies, “They’re not actually incorrect.” I think in many ways that may be the ideology of the film, that we all have a duty to give back and that a complete life is one lived in service of needs more than our own.

There are a few false notes in the film – how does Stella find Barbara’s apartment, for one? – and some questions that remain unanswered, but overall this is a very good work of art and entertainment, rolled into one powerful film.

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