The East German film Barbara begins with a sense of paranoia and never backs off. Colors are muted, weather is stormy and damp, buildings are dilapidated. And Barbara (Nina Hoss) enters the picture wary, distant and observant.
Remember that old Kurt Cobain lyric that states that “just because your paranoid it doesn’t mean they’re not after you.” Well, it has never been truer than with Barbara. The film opens in East Germany in the 1980s with Barbara arriving at her job early. She is alone, aloof, and very aware. As she sits having a final cigarette before going into work, we see two men spying on her from a window and they give us some back-story. They already know her life. Barbara was a prestigious doctor in “the city” and for some misadventure–we are never told what–she has been sent to work in the provinces.
Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), the young doctor who is her “handler,” is impressed by her skills but flustered by her attitude. He too has had a past that has sentenced him to this provincial hospital. But she sees him as nothing more than a pawn of the government. When he first offers her a ride home from the bus stop where she waits, he drives her home–without asking where she lives. Barbara is very certain of the eyes that are on her.
This oppressive watching makes Barbara’s secret plotting even more difficult. She is repeatedly meeting a lover who is arranging to have her escape to the West. And while the authorities are not aware of her plans, they are unhappy when she is unaccounted for hours at a time. Twice when she returns home, the Stassi are at her apartment, having rifled through her flat and subjecting her to a full body search. The humiliation and oppressiveness is palpable.
There are also two young patients that Barbara and her handler attend to, one of whom grows very fond of Barbara and begs not to be sent back to the work farm where she is sentenced. The young girl will play an important role later in the film, but it would be too much of a spoiler to say how. The other too is a fulcrum on which the plot balances.
Needless to say, the romantic tension between Barbara and Andre grows, but it is always secondary to the political and personal tension involved in Barbara’s escape.
Without giving too much of the ending away, let me just say that it is satisfying, heartwrenching and thoughtful.
The East German paranoia reminded me of another film The Life of Others directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. This too took place in East Germany during the 1980s, but the film was told from the point of view of a Stassi spy. Spying on a writer and his lover, he becomes increasingly involved in the life he is observing. And while the oppressive paranoia and wariness is as palpable as it is in Barbara, it is, perhaps, less personal. In the former, we are in fairly familiar territory–the spy thriller, albeit with a twist. In director Christian Petzold‘s Barbara, the paranoia, the fear, and the oppression–engulfing the lives of everyday people as it does– seems more suffocating, closer to real.
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I’m not sure what Leonard Cohen has to do with any of this, except he tells us that “next we’ll take Berlin” in this, one of my favorite songs. But the water’s edge where the video begins is eerily reminiscent of the water’s edge where Barbara ends and that is what I thought of. Enjoy: