In Christian Petzold’s moody and beautifully shot Barbara, audiences are given a peek into what life might have been like in 1980 for smart and talented people stuck on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall.
Nina Hoss is superb as the title character, a physician who, for mysterious reasons, has been consigned (maybe even confined) to a small town medical practice where many of its patients are making grim choices that seem to grow out of their geographical suffocation.
The brusque manner in which Barbara approaches her patients and co-workers seems like a wall of its own; she's an impenetrable barrier made of equal parts sadness, stoicism, and apathy. Her bleak apartment with intermittent electricity is an apt metaphor for her bedside manner. Yet she finds calmness in reading Mark Twain and bicycling to work along verdant paths, each leg of the journey filmed as if the breeze itself is miked. Still, she’s so internal she’s barely there.
The darkness around her seems to dissipate when she allows herself to let a few people in: first, a couple patients whose injuries are strange and only spoken of in hushed terms, and then a physician co-worker (Ronald Zerhfeld) who seems to have amiably accommodated himself to their living situation and is harboring a crush on her. Barbara’s retreat from her self-imposed exile seems to at once soften her and strengthen her resolve to stash bigger and bigger wads of money away for an eventual escape to the West. (A certain Stasi officer appears to suspect her wish to run and, as such, sporadically drops in to search through her things.)
Petzold and Hoss have worked together several times and demonstrate here a comfort with each other that heightens the film's sense of realism. To play a character as recessive as Barbara, an actor must find a place of non-acting, almost. Hoss is excellent as a woman who shows no fireworks and keeps every emotion close to the vest. And yet every minute she's on screen, we're drawn like a magnet to her presence.