Films about oppressive regimes tend to have a flair for the dramatic, either focusing on the tyrannical leaders themselves (as in “The Last King of Scotland” and “Downfall”) or the worst atrocities committed under their reigns (as in “Hotel Rwanda” and “The Killing Fields”). This is not a criticism, as the films I’ve mentioned (and many others like them) are highly regarded and have much to say about the important events that they chronicle. But what often gets lost in such plot-heavy historical dramatizations is what it was like for ordinary people, slightly removed from the regimes’ most deplorable undertakings, to live under totalitarianism. Thus, the minimalist portrait of East German daily life in Christian Petzold’s “Barbara” feels fresh, exuding a distinct you-are-there-quality.
That’s not to say that filmmaker Petzold’s less violent, non-military-centric approach to this type of material is incredibly unusual—Agnieska Holland’s Holocaust film “In Darkness,” released last year, had a similarly intimate focus, for instance—but rather, that the film feels like the latest foundational work in what could grow into a burgeoning sub-genre. “Barbara” makes for a great companion piece to the other recent art-house hit about East Germany, 2006’s “The Lives of Others,” in that it follows a woman who the focal Stasi officer of that film could have been assigned to surveil.
Barbara (Nina Hoss), a physician, has been transferred from a prestigious hospital in East Berlin to small-town pediatric clinic — the government’s way of punishing her for applying for an exit visa. The head of the clinic, Dr. André Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld), is instructed by the Stasi to help them keep a close eye on Barbara, but she still manages to plan an escape with West German lover Jörg (Mark Wascheke). That’s basically the entire set-up; the film is more about the profound weight of facing the risk of political imprisonment on a daily basis than what ostensibly happens. This dynamic is explored specifically in Barbara’s interactions with a pregnant young woman named Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), set to complete a hard-labor sentence after she is treated for meningitis.
Much of the film’s success is attributable to lead actress Hoss, who expertly walks a fine line in simultaneously functioning as the audience’s sympathy figure (our connection to this world/history) and maintaining an enigmatic exterior (she knows the Stasi could be watching her at any moment). Her performance features constant interplay between these two elements. The scenes which feature Barbara and Dr. Reiser deliberating over Stella’s medical condition are particularly compelling in this regard, as Barbara clearly feels a connection with this oppressed girl, but has to keep it guarded because she knows that Reiser will likely report such sympathies to the Stasi. Reiser also makes romantic advances toward Barbara, during which Hoss’ performance provides the impression that Barbara, like the audience, wonders if they are legitimate or a ploy to get her to open up with valuable information.
This is Hoss’ fourth collaboration with Petzold, and together, they’ve made an accomplished body of films about complex women in unfortunate situations. “Barbara” may be their best yet, as it’s about even more than that; the film is perhaps the most unflinching fictionalized portrait of the ills of Marxist socialism I’ve seen.