Re:View – ‘Barbara’

The Arts

You’ll notice this column doesn’t really cover rom-coms and Adam Sandler movies, mainly because you can find out about those anywhere. Instead, here’s a German film worthy of your attention; Christian Petzold’s quietly emotional film is set in the pre-reunification East of 1980, but instead of sunless gloom and grey-faced drudges we’re in sun-dappled countryside at a provincial hospital.

Barbara (Nina Hoss) has newly started duty as a doctor, but is cold and distant from her co-workers, refusing to make friends and sitting alone in the cafeteria at lunch; her reasons gradually emerge as it’s very subtly revealed that she had applied to leave the GDR in the past to be with her lover in West Germany, and was punished by being transferred from Berlin to the sticks.

He can sometimes get over to meet her, and encourages her to get out, so she’s meticulously planning to escape. But when the authorities know that something like this is likely, they keep watch on her, periodically searching her apartment and subjecting her to strip-searches. Apart from this periodic intrusion, life is pleasant enough and she’s a passionate doctor, bonding with Stella, a young girl who has run away from work details five times and most recently contracted meningitis from ticks after hiding in fields for many days.

There’s also a kind, decent man – a fellow doctor whose attempts to thaw her out are mostly rebuffed; for if Barbara grows to care for the hospital, and by extension her co-worker, she may be swayed from her determination to escape. But as the day approaches, work piles up at the hospital and it will prove hard to get away.

And her decision is not clear-cut. A telling scene with the girlfriend of her Western lover’s business partner shows how easily the West’s obsession with consumerism will change her after, as the pair leaf through catalogues of cheap jewellery that appears as an Aladdin’s cave to the younger girl. Is this really what Barbara wants?

More of a character study than a thriller, this still raises the tension as we see Barbara’s life-changing decision bringing matters to a head, and wonder if she’ll crack under the pressure to decide. Crisply shot, with stillness and silences adding to drama, we also long to see Barbara unfreeze herself, and the end shot is very satisfying. This would make a fine companion piece to the brilliant ‘The Lives of Others’.

2 comments on “Re:View – ‘Barbara’”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    Thank you. This is a film I have been wanting to see and now definately will. “The Lives of Others” was terrific, although my former East friends say the ending wasn’t so good. “Goodbye Lenin” was also very good; “Run Lola Run” as well. (This film changed Osi women’s hair color in a most amazing way.) I write a lot about the former East as it is in flux and therefore provides many possible stories.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    If Stella is still infected with meningitis Barbara is taking quite a risk since it is highly contagious, unless this is a different form. I can remember my husband’s cousin stripping to the skin and throwing everything into a wash before she came up into the house when she was nursing meningitis patients.

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