In Communist East Germany in 1980, Barbara (Nina Hoss), a doctor, is exiled to work in a small provincial town. Planning to escape to Denmark with her boyfriend Jorg (Mark Waschke), Barbara remains icy and withdrawn around her colleagues, particularly with the lead physician, Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), who is hiding a secret of his own. With her patients, however, the guarded doctor is kind, warm, and protective, even risking her own safety for one of her charges. But as the day of her planned escape approaches, Barbara starts to lose control, over herself, her plans and over love.
Review by Louise Keller:
A meticulously crafted drama in which the depiction of character, place and circumstance evolves slowly and with intrigue, Barbara is gripping cinema from the outset. Nothing is spelt out but certain elements are clear. Compassion, honour and selflessness are the film's main themes as a doctor finds more than she bargains for when she is sent to a remote medical facility in East Germany. Filmmaker Christian Petzold utilises restraint and subtlety throughout as the characters gradually reveal themselves through their actions and reactions. Many questions remain unanswered, but the portrait satisfies on its own terms. Filled with haunting imagery, the narrative evolves naturally and with subtlety, as does the integral relationship with a fellow doctor. With fear as the driver, this is a film that endears itself over time and whose rewards are profound.
When Barbara (Nina Hoss) arrives from Berlin and is introduced to the other medical staff, her circumstances are ambiguous. It is not until Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), the charismatic doctor who reveals his secret to her, explaining why he has been sent to this outpost, that we realise she too must have a secret. This is not a happy environment. The patients comprise disturbed young people who are trying to escape from something. Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) is a young girl who has escaped the barbed wire fence of the nearby socialist work camp and with whom Barbara bonds. Mario (Jannik Schümann), who attempts suicide, is a patient in whom Andre takes special interest.
Meanwhile, Barbara rides her bicycle along the windy pathway, the multi-coloured leaves of the aligning trees whistling as she passes. She regularly and secretly meets her lover (Mark Waschke) in the nearby woods and brings back cigarettes, hosiery and most importantly a stash of money which she hides. There are regular, intrusive searches by what we assume to be the secret police that arrive at Barbara's doorstep unannounced.
The beauty of the film begins to reveal itself as the relationship between Barbara and Andre begins - innocuously and unforced. Their connection becomes pronounced when it is clear that they share the same values and commitment to their patients. Hoss (The White Masai) is luminous on screen, her beautiful features highlighted at every angle, irrespective of the drab surroundings. Zehrfeld's natural warmth makes him a compelling character and as the two of them are drawn to each other, we sense the unspoken chemistry. Those expecting every detail to be spelt out will be disappointed. Much is implied and not everything is revealed. However, what we are given, is enough to satisfy.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
I don't know what general audiences make of Barbara, because it's only through reading the background notes by the filmmakers that I discovered some of the key aspects of the story - namely the reason for Barbara's (Nine Hoss) exile to the East German provinces. Director Christian Petzold seems determined to tell us as little as possible by way of contextualising Barbara's circumstances and coupled with her detached, withdrawn behaviour, she presents as a rather dull character for most of the film.
There is much attention to detail by way of settings and places, which could have been useful if applied equally to character exploration. The only clues we get come by way of a couple of unexplained rendezvous with her lover; unexplained in that we have no idea where he comes from and why. Petzold seems to ignore such matters as trivialities that shouldn't matter to us, but for building our reality from what we see on screen, these are relevant.
Hoss is excellent as Barbara, and Ronald Zehrfeld is memorable as the senior doctor at the tiny hospital, whose warmth is a great contrast to her cool. Both are shown to have deep moral attributes, but there is a perfunctory tone to the development of their relationship.
Barbara's punishment - remote location, crappy flat, constant surveillance and intrusive cavity searches - is all the more confronting in the ignorance of her 'crime' but it doesn't satisfy us dramatically.
In short, the failures in storytelling detract from the film, despite its sensitivities, its subtleties and its final payoff of personal sacrifice.
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CAST: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Rainer Bock, Christina Hecke, Claudia Geisler, Peter Weiss, Carolin Haupt, Deniz Petzold
PRODUCER: Florian Koerner von Gustorf
DIRECTOR: Christian Petzold
SCRIPT: Christian Petzold (with Harun Farocki)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Hans Fromm
EDITOR: Bettina Bohler
MUSIC: Stefan Will
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Kade Gruber
RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Madman
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 7, 2013