Christian Petzold’s Barbara, set in 1980 East Germany, is a film about watching and being watched. Its central character, the Barbara of the title — played, in a covertly spectacular performance, by the German actress Nina Hoss — is a doctor who’s just been transferred by the government from Berlin to the provinces, as punishment for some undefined but easy-to-guess transgression.
As a result, the authorities keep a close eye on her, dropping by her austere apartment at all hours to rifle through her almost nonexistent possessions, in addition to conducting more personally invasive searches.
And yet Barbara, with her enormous, watchful eyes, appears to see more than they do. It’s as if some sixth sense is telling her something that we, thanks to hindsight, already know: Their reign of intimidation won’t last. She’s a woman who has the bad luck to be stuck in the present, but that doesn’t stop her from striding toward an unknowable but possibly better future.
Barbara is hardly the cheerful sort — she cracks a smile barely once in the movie, and even then, you hardly see it — but there’s something bracingly optimistic about her. That guarded optimism is the soft glow that keeps Barbara lit from within, like a lantern; Petzold has made a nighttime movie that ends right on the edge of dawn.
Barbara is Germany’s entry in the Oscar race for best foreign-language film, and it’s so good, in such a boldly unflashy way, that you can only hope it will win. There’s no grand political crisis at its core, just the everyday anguish of a long-term one. And it doesn’t feature any overstated moral dilemmas. But it’s a movie that works its magic slowly, and on multiple levels; it’s a historical drama, a mystery and a love story. And Hoss’ performance is simply one of the finest of the year.
Petzold first trains his camera on Barbara as she’s arriving for her first day of work at the small hospital in her new town: Her colleague-to-be Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) and the agent who’s been assigned to dog her, Schutz (Rainer Bock), watch her from the window. Before she enters the hospital, she sits defiantly on a park bench for a few moments; she won’t, as Schutz notes, deign to arrive even a minute early.
For Schutz, Barbara is a nuisance, like a petulant child. But Andre is clearly entranced with her. If it’s not love at first sight that he feels as he gazes down at that trim, obstinate blond thundercloud on the park bench, it’s something very close and maybe even better. Call it amused admiration.
But Barbara wants little to do with him; she doesn’t know if he’s been assigned to spy on her, and so she keeps her distance, going about her work with grim politeness. She also happens to be brilliant at her job, as Andre quickly realizes. She diagnoses a young woman’s meningitis almost immediately, and also recognizes why the girl is so traumatized: She has tried to escape from a nearby detention camp. Barbara has no use for people in positions of authority; it’s those in need of protection who matter to her, and she’s imperious toward everyone else.
She also, as it turns out, has a secret plan. Andre may suspect it, but we don’t really know. All we see in Zehrfeld’s superb, muted performance is the wonder Andre feels toward this quietly rebellious creature who has suddenly come into his orbit.
As Hoss plays her, Barbara is worthy of that wonder. Barbara’s very prickliness animates her: With her huge, dark-rimmed eyes, she’s like a forest creature with her defenses on high alert, and she’s captivating. Andre gazes at her with a degree of timidity, and so do we. It’s bad enough that the state is watching her every minute; we want to allow her some privacy, and yet it’s hard to take our eyes off her. Even Petzold’s camera is tactful in its gaze; we often see her from a sidelong angle, as if it were a lucky thing just to be able to steal a glance.
Everything about Barbara is understated, to the point that it often seems as if not much is happening. But that’s part of Petzold’s skill. He has been making films in Germany for years — his best known pictures may be the 2007 Yella and the 2008 Jerichow, both featuring Hoss — and with luck, Barbara will bring him a larger audience. He’s the kind of director and screenwriter (he wrote this screenplay with Harun Farocki) who can give a character a thoughtful soliloquy on a Rembrandt painting, like the one Andre delivers here, and make it seem perfectly natural.
And as shot by Hans Fromm, Barbara is beautiful to look at. There’s no foreboding Eastern Bloc grimness here; instead, watching Barbara pedal through the rugged countryside on her bicycle, we’re made acutely aware of the landscape’s beauty. Barbara takes place in a country that would change drastically — or, perhaps more accurately, change drastically again — just nine years after its events. But Barbara, a woman in transition, can’t wait. You can see why she has to keep moving. (Recommended)