Dec

30

Barbara

Directed by Christian Petzold

With a time-frame starting back in 1980, the accumulating tension of time and place in Barbara begins as physician Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss) arrives at a modest rural pediatric hospital in East Germany, clearly transferred there not with her acquiescence, from a prestigious hospital in Berlin by never-named Authorities. Her 'crime' is obliquely referred to as that she had had the unmitigated gall to commit a request for an exit visa.

What comes to mind is the Orwell book and film 1984 (1984), where remorseless monitoring, and literally rewriting reality into a never-was 'history,' are the norm. Adding to the received nerve-rattling classics of life under surveillance as the German The Lives of Others (2006), and 2007's Romanian 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, director Christian Petzold—one of Germany's leading contemporary filmmakers—visits the perturbed, seething yet everyday calamities and wastes of the East German totalitarian era: Paranoia goes deep. But, heavily draped with an Iron Curtain, paranoia is entirely justified.

The Barbara we see for the preponderance of this meticulously reported could-be reality is cool to stand-offish with colleagues—even a handsome, responsive doctor named Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) who gallantly batters against the wall of her reserve. No matter her remoteness from her physician coworkers, she comes to life with immediate sensitivity, professionalism and warmth when dealing with her sometimes desperate patients, who suffer from a plethora of socially induced ills. A century ago, these women would have been given a DX of "hysteria," but here, their paroxysms and longeuers have readily apparent etiologies. People cannot live healthily under constant fear, badgering, harassment and humiliations large and small.

We see from constant random body searches and intrusive shakedowns of her apartment that Barbara has ample reason to maintain her reserve. Anyone, everyone, in Cold War-era East Germany could be an informant or "a cadre" (as my grad students in China called class informants they surreptitiously, and cautiously, pointed out to me). Through another ocular, by the same token, anyone can also be an anonymous, clandestine hero. This however takes planning and cunning.

We see from constant random body searches and intrusive shakedowns of her apartment that Barbara has ample reason to maintain her reserve. Anyone, everyone, in Cold War-era East Germany could be an informant or "a cadre" (as my grad students in China called class informants they surreptitiously, and cautiously, pointed out to me). Through another ocular, by the same token, anyone can also be an anonymous, clandestine hero. This however takes planning and cunning.

With spare narrative and a dead-on sense of physical and emotional atmosphere, Petzold creates an unbearably vivid portrait of a period that, in the intervening decades, has come to seem strangely both current as well as fractured-old. Facial expressions do not alter with time, nor does the practice of medicine; even the era-clothing is not distinctive enough—as in the new American release about adoptive restrictions to non-typical couples in the early 1980s, Any Day Now, which shouts gaudy gauche gefehrlach post-psychedelic America to such an extent that you keep wanting to bring in the wardrobe mistress—to spank her for such transgressions against good taste. Filmed in strong mustards, greens, blues, it nevertheless reads like a grainy black-and-white feature of Russian 1950s vintage.

Filmed in the verdant, lush, blustery province of Brandenburg, Barbara is often ravishing to the eye, especially as the lithe eponymous character pedals through forests, windblown fields and country roads. As she appeared in the harrowing WW II A Woman in Berlin (2008), Hoss, who never smiles for the first two-thirds of the film, exerts an almost-hypnotic effect, drawing us in steadily to unveil a character whose single-minded goal, only gradually glimpsed, slowly yields to more, and more complex, issues. John Le Carré spycraft sensibility threads the story. Secrets are harder to keep when one's office, home and bodily orifices are searched at whim. As the story transmogrifies to assume the lineaments of a thriller, it might be open to debate whether the film ends the way Westerners are accustomed. Is it a 'happy' end? Such questions are often irrelevant to serious filmgoers, as they are noxious to fair consideration of the handling of important themes.

 This is not a manicured, made for TV all-ends-tied-together pastiche. In this sophisticated, deftly crafted portrayal of grass-roots Communistic realpolitik, Petzold leaves viewers with the sense that, when it comes to such events, people and issues, neat packages are rarely available. Nor, to be fair, ought they be.

The residuum is a silent acknowledgment that, indeed, some progress has moved the needle forward. Injustices and totalitarianism still exist, but a few of the worst have in time been ameliorated. There is some sort of hope in that.
In German. English subtitles.
 


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