East Germany, 1980. It’s the height of the Cold War in one of the most oppressive surveillance states in the world. Dr. Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss, who is brilliant in her fifth collaboration with director and screenwriter Christian Petzold) is the new physician at a clinic in a small village. We soon find out she’s been reassigned to a less prestigious position in retaliation for having applied for an exit visa. As a person of interest, that means living in a perpetual state of suspicion with fewer rights than a parolee living down a murder conviction.
See "Barbara" trailer HERE.
The first days on the job, Barbara makes little effort to disguise her feelings. One day after work her associate, Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), sees her waiting at a bus stop and offers a ride. He suggests she shouldn’t be “so separate.” She tells him he already knows about her – her past and where she lives – because “they” have told him.
From the audience’s perspective, Andre seems quite impressed by and even attracted to Barbara. But why is such a talented doctor working in the provinces? Is it “to assure no one is too separate”? What would be considered a paranoid inference somewhere else is quite rational in the German Democratic Republic of the1980s.
The oppression of living in a totalitarian surveillance state is made concrete in “Barbara.” The State is always hovering about, literally or figuratively. Distrust warps every interaction and relationship. When Barbara rides her bike on the way home at an unusually late hour, government officials pull her over, escort her home and perform a complete body search. Klaus Schütz turns up the appropriate level of creepiness in his role as the Stasi Officer who spends every working hour relentlessly peering into the lives of others.
It makes one wonder: What happens when a state like the German Democratic Republic has access to a seamless network of drones that could not only inflict surgical hits almost anywhere in the world, but also transmit images and conversations to computer data-mining networks and geo-positioning satellites?
Barbara soon proves to be a sensitive and gifted physician, quickly diagnosing Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), an agitated young woman who has been dragged kicking and screaming into the emergency room. When Andre and the staff misdiagnose her condition, Barbara correctly surmises Stella has come down with meningitis after escaping from a socialist extermination camp in Torgau.
Barbara listens skeptically when Andre recounts a tragic mistake he made in his previous job that resulted in his reassignment. Can he be trusted? The case was supposedly hushed up, so there’s no record.
Hans Fromm’s cinematography captures the crisp, vibrant colors of the Baltic Coast, while the unfashionably slow pacing nicely matches the guarded interactions of citizens living in a police state. The film occasionally drags and Petzold probably could have trimmed a few minutes off its 105-minute running time, but stay with “Barbara” until the end. After what came before, Chic’s performance of “At Last I Am Free” over the ending credits packs a powerful emotional wallop.
See playdates and locations for “Barbara” HERE.
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