Filmmaker Christian Petzold’s “Barbara” is one of those subtle films that gently but firmly grabs one’s attention and won’t let go until the final reel.
In 1980 East Germany, Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss), a young pediatric doctor, has been transferred from a prestigious post in Berlin to a small pediatric hospital in the hinterlands, as punishment, because she has applied for an exit visa to the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
In her new post, she is constantly on guard, suspicious of everyone, as she continues to plan for her escape. This fact imbues the entire film, as well as Ms. Hoss’s portrayal, with an ever-present sense of tension. She feels she cannot confide in anyone, as all the hospital personnel are potential betrayers.
She is disturbed, then, by the attentions of a young doctor, André (Ronald Zehrfeld), and initially rejects his efforts at friendship. However, she discovers that not only is he genuinely talented and sincere regarding his medical duties, but he also shares her interests in art and music. In spite of herself, she feels drawn to him.
André tells Barbara how he came to be here, at this unimportant venue: An intern whose work he was supervising unintentionally caused the blindness of two young children, and he, André, had chosen to exile himself here. Barbara is moved by the poignant story, but even now, she wonders if André is telling her the truth.
Director: Christian Petzold
Cast: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Rainer Bock
Running Time: 105 minutes
Language: In German with English subtitles
Mistrust permeates the film, in which soft, unobtrusive pale blues and grays (Hans Fromm, director of photography) contradict the gravity of the content.
When a young patient, Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), suffering from meningitis, arrives at the hospital, she intensely latches onto Barbara, not only as a doctor but also as a mother figure. Barbara is the only person who Stella will allow to treat her.
Furthermore, Stella is pregnant and will probably be returned to a work camp once her present condition is cured, which would have tragic consequences on her health and that of her unborn child. Barbara’s protective instincts are deeply aroused.
Soon, the opportunity arises for Barbara to make her escape to the West. Will she choose to take that opportunity and better her position, or will she perform a heroic act, to save another?
The story’s time and place permeate the film, lending particular weight to the ethical and moral choices of the characters. The sparseness of East Germany is felt profoundly, when weighed against the sense of plenty and freedom that the West would offer.
The strong reality conveyed is undoubtedly aided by the fact that each scene was carefully rehearsed prior to shooting, according to production notes. Also, the actors were permitted to familiarize themselves with the various sets so that they could feel at home in the hospital settings. In addition, many underwent training in certain medical procedures so that they appeared expert as doctors and nurses.
Performances are excellent throughout, with particular praise due to Nina Hoss, who was so imbued with her character that she didn’t appear to be acting. A powerful and moving film.
Diana Barth writes and publishes “New Millennium,” an arts publication. For information: firstname.lastname@example.org
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