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Barbara

Barbara

Released 28 September 2012
Director Christian Petzold
Starring


Nina Hoss, Rainer Bock, Ronald Zehrfeld, Christina Hecke, Claudia Geisler
Writer(s) Christian Petzold
Producer(s) Florian Koerner von Gustorf
Origin Germany
Running Time 105 minutes
Genre Drama
Rating 12A
83

Cold comfort.

We are first introduced to Barbara from the point of view of two men who watch her from a window as she disembarks from a bus and sits down for a cigarette. One has met her before - from him we learn that she is a doctor, has recently been incarcerated and is alone with no friends or family. As to her personality, he notes, "If she were a six year old, we’d call her sulky." This is all the exposition we get in Christian Petzold’s Barbara, a film that reveals itself slowly and makes us work out what is going on from incidental pieces of dialogue. There are some details we never learn, although given the setting this secretive kind of storytelling is apt.

The film is set in East Germany sometime in the 1980s. There is a climate of suspicion and subterfuge at work in every corner of society, even a small rural town where neighbour spies on neighbour. Barbara had been a successful doctor working in Berlin but after some unspecified crime, she is incarcerated and then sent to a small country clinic to pay back her debt to society. Her movements are monitored by the two men mentioned previously; a Stasi agent (Rainer Bock) and the head of the clinic, Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld). The film follows Barbara in her new life as she slowly becomes engrossed in her work at the clinic, while simultaneously attempting to escape it.

There is not a frame in the film that doesn’t feature Barbara and the slow reveal of the narrative is echoed in the central, wonderful performance from Nina Hoss. Barbara is a cool, icy blonde. Her haughty demeanour, impassive expressions and keenness to separate herself from those around her is identified by her co-workers as the superior attitude of one who comes from Berlin. On the contrary, this coldness is a safety mechanism against the routine brutality of her life. Petzold highlights this with interesting framing. Alone, we are brought close to Barbara in tight shots but when she is with somebody else, she is frequently pushed off to the side, or seen at an angle.

An excellent portrayal of hardship and oppression in a seemingly idyllic setting, Barbara is also a wonderful character study thanks to the intense performance from Nina Hoss. Hard going at times but also uplifting, Barbara deserves a wide audience.

- Linda O’Brien