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Review: Barbara

September 26, 2012

Film + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia


Today’s mainstream film landscape usually spoon-feeds audiences with storytelling that doesn’t leave much room for personal lucubration. But when you approach a film like this one, knowing its pedigree of Berlin Film Festival winner for Best Director and winner of the Silver Lola (the German Oscar) for Best Picture, you need to be prepared for a different kind of experience. The European sensibility is quite peculiar and might be off-putting to the general public. Barbara has potential to intrigue viewers with its period setting but doesn’t entail a sensationalized depiction of history for entertainment’s sake.

Set in East Germany aka the GDR (German Democratic Republic) during the summer of 1980, the story follows Barbara (Nina Hoss), a doctor who’s been banned from Berlin after trying to obtain a travel visa to West Germany. She’s transferred to a confined village where she’s bound to work in a rural hospital. The place is under the supervision of Dr. Andre Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld), a kind soul, passionate about his job. Ever since her arrival, Barbara is basically a prisoner, even if not technically behind bars. A GDR officer is constantly watching her and shows up at her run-down apartment unannounced for impromptu, uncomfortable searches. Barbara lives a restrained, claustrophobic life by keeping to herself until she draws Andre’s attention when she diagnoses a troubled teenage girl with meningitis and shows a great deal of compassion for her patient.

Andre seems to become smitten with Barbara. Their chemistry grows, fueled by the shared commitment to their profession but Barbara remains cautious in spite of softening up a bit. Her misanthropic, paranoid ways are justified by her plan to escape the East once and for all. And yet, life is bigger than us and often screws with our plans, not necessarily obstructing our way but showing us unexpected routes we’d ruled out all along. Barbara, in fact, is faced with a delicate dilemma that isn’t just about doing the right thing. She has to figure out whether what she really wants out of life has changed.

Nina Hoss is pitch-perfect in the title role, mastering an extremely constrained performance that effectively conveys the bleak drama of Barbara’s life. Director Christian Petzold makes bold choices, telling a subtle story that relies on subtext rather than exposition. The monotonous, choking atmosphere of the era is efficiently delivered by the minimalistic and yet thoroughly detailed production design. Camera placement and color palette are skillfully utilized to make us feel part of this world. However, these well-measured stylistic choices make for a picture that many will find cold, to say the least. The emotional core is all internalized and the pacing takes quite a hit in the film’s slow middle section. Only if you’re patient enough to follow this woman’s journey you’ll be rewarded before credits roll with the ultimate emotional pay off.

Francesco Cerniglia

Barbara is released in cinemas this Friday 28th September in the UK.