Any time any American talks about being spied on by the government, that person should be forced to watch Barbara, a tense and quietly paranoid drama that takes place in East Germany in 1980. You want to know what it’s really like to have your government spy on you? Check this out.
That’s not a non-indictment of illegal wiretapping. It is, however, a comparison of scale. Other invasions of privacy suffered in Barbara: Body cavity searches, which appear just as horrific as Gov. Bob “Ultrasound” McDonnell of Virginia probably thinks they’re not.
Enough with the pontificating, though. Barbara is a tense and believable psychological thriller, the kind that gets into your head, makes itself comfortable and then slowly shreds your nerves. About an hour into the movie, I took a break—my knuckles white, my breathing labored.
On its face, Barbara doesn’t resemble a typical thriller. There is no gunplay. There is no car chase. There is no “gotcha” moment. The drama is much more insidious. Dr. Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss) has been sent to the East German provinces for requesting an exit visa. Her punishment is to work in a hospital where she’s clearly the most gifted and experienced doctor, though the other staffers view her as a snooty Berliner.
Only one other doctor, André Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld), the chief of staff, seems sympathetic to Barbara’s plight. He has a kind face, trusts her instincts and tries to make her life easier, though it’s unclear whether he’s being nice out of the kindness of his heart or whether he’s working for the government. Over the course of the movie, his relationship with Barbara becomes more and more complicated.
We quickly learn that Barbara has taken her escape into her own hands; she has a lover who sneaks in to visit her, and who’s arranged for her to go to Denmark. All she has to do is wait for the signal.
If only it were that easy. As the story progresses, it seems each character knows more about Barbara than she’s ever told them. Her landlord eyes her with suspicion; there’s a government agent who stops by for random checks; and then there are the body cavity searches.
Most impressive about Barbara is its quiet manner, the way in which the daily humiliations behind the iron curtain seem de rigueur. The oppression Barbara and others wear isn’t an accoutrement; it’s the main article.
As with all thrillers, events and emotions eventually become more urgent. Barbara’s choices narrow; the oppression gets heavier; the movie becomes less satisfactory. Introduced early on, seemingly as a throwaway character, is Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), a young pregnant woman who escapes from a work camp and contracts meningitis while hiding in the woods from authorities. Her fate and Barbara’s become linked over time, and it seems forced. It makes sense for Barbara to treat Stella with compassion in the hospital. When they inevitably meet later outside the hospital, it doesn’t ring true. It’s at this point the movie falters and doesn’t quite recover.
That plot development doesn’t kill Barbara overall—I just hoped for a different resolution. There are enough eerie Big Brother moments and sinister dealings to carry the picture through its weaker points.
Hoss is appropriately reserved with moments of sheer panic, and Zehrfeld strikes the right tone with his big, soft eyes that may be hiding a more nefarious plan. It’s hard to know what he’s thinking, even when he tells Barbara exactly what’s on his mind.
Hans Fromm’s cinematography is a big help, with the muted and shabby interiors of the hospital and Barbara’s apartment contrasting with the natural beauty of the surroundings, including a forest and the sea. It’s hard to imagine what government oppression feels like, but Barbara makes it easier.
Directed by Christian Petzold / With Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld / The Screen / 105 min. / PG-13