REVIEW: 'Barbara' a world of trust and mistrust

Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Hoss in 'Barbara'
Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Hoss in 'Barbara'
Photo by Schramm Film Koerner & Weber
| Thursday, March 21, 2013, 7:22 p.m.

Perhaps the most harrowing moments in “Barbara,” Christian Petzold's outstanding film set in East Germany in 1980, are those when the title character is home in her drab apartment.

She suffers worse indignities, but there is an air of hopelessness as she simply sits in a chair with the window open. Whenever a car drives by, she snaps to attention, sneaks toward the window, and looks to see who it might be. As well she might; if it's the Stasi, the East German secret police, she could be in for a surprise search of the apartment and, worse, a humiliating cavity search, just because.

There is no respite, ever.

What makes it all the more degrading is that Barbara (the brilliant Nina Hoss) is a respected physician who used to work in a top-flight hospital in Berlin. But now she is exiled to a tiny town on the coast of the Baltic Sea. She ran afoul of the East German government, and this is her reward: suspicion, humiliation, frustration.

Petzold, who also co-wrote the script, winds up the Cold War tension from the start and keeps it taut throughout. When Barbara arrives at the small hospital where she will be working, two men watch her from a window. One is Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), the medical director. The other is Klaus Schutz (Rainer Bock), a Stasi agent who tells Andre that Barbara is sulky.

That and more. Barbara walls herself off from everyone, trusting no one. That includes Andre (especially Andre), who is an excellent doctor and seems genuinely interested in a relationship with Barbara. She'll have none of it, convinced that he is a Stasi informant, there to observe her and report on her comings and goings.

Maybe he is. And maybe Barbara gives the authorities reason not to trust her. Yet, that hardly matters. What does is the dehumanizing effects of the East German authorities. This is no life. It's just a different type of prison.

One bright spot is brief, carefully arranged trysts with her lover (Mark Waschke). Plans and plots are discussed. Barbara dreams of breaking her shackles, somehow getting to West Germany.

Complicating Barbara's life further is the arrival of a patient, Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), a pregnant teenager who trusts only Barbara (trust being something in short supply in the doctor's life) and works in a labor camp. Like Barbara, she yearns for freedom.

If it sounds like a romantic drama, there is some. But the overlay of Communist oppression infuses every scene.

Zehrfeld is good as Andre, a genuinely likable fellow. But he obviously has layer upon layer to his personality. Good guy? Bad guy? A mix? Can a mix truly exist?

Hoss is fantastic. Barbara is ice-cold at the start, understandably so. Yet, Hoss makes her sympathetic. Any break in that facade is incremental and, therefore, all the more welcome. Consulting over patients, she warily grows a little closer to Andre, unsure of both him and herself.

The whole film is an exercise in trust and the lack thereof. In the end, it's a kind of horror film, really, a reminder that these sorts of things were endured by so many for so long, with hope an unlikely ally.

Bill Goodykoontz is a movie critic for The Arizona Republic.

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