Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

To make a film that is slow and contemplative comes with a burden. It’s not enough to simply remove incident and leave the audience with a few scraps of symbolism; each moment not spent directly advancing story and character dynamics has to have the aesthetic reach to grab and hold our undivided attention. In other words, it has to look fantastic, and do so in a meaningful, compelling way.

This is not to suggest that Barbara is lacking in plot. Director Christian Petzold and his co-writer Harun Farocki provide plenty of material to fill its running time, with a story of the paranoia and loss suffered under the eye and boot of the Stasi in East Germany circa 1980. The central character, Barbara (Nina Hoss), is a victim of that state, a physician who has requested to leave the country to be with her husband in West Germany. For her attempted secession, she is punished with a transfer from the illustrious Charite medical school in East Berlin to an unremarkable little hospital by the sea.

Barbara endures regular attention from the secret police, enduring apartment searches and humiliating strip searches. Andre Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld), a fellow doctor at the hospital, is asked by the Stasi to befriend her and provide them with reports on her thoughts and activities. Barbara quickly recognizes his motives and rebuffs him, and finds time to secretly meet her wealthy husband while planning her escape from the Soviet state.

It is, as I said, quite an involved story, and that’s part of the reason why, in the movie’s many long stretches where Barbara sits, walks, or bicycles from one place to another, it’s not just acceptable downtime, but an essential part of the piece’s mood and narrative. It’s a slow-burn suspense film of sorts, one where quiet conversations and glances out of windows are loaded with implications and questions — “Should she trust him? Do the Stasi know where she is? Will she escape?” But underlying all these questions is Barbara’s predicament of life and love lived under the duress of state scrutiny, which also makes the film a melodrama of sorts.

Given how quiet and guarded her character is, the intelligence and sensitivity that Hoss shows makes for a sensational performance. Rather than play Barbara the obvious way — as an emotionally armoured bitch with a secret — Hoss grounds her jadedness in real fears and feelings: this is a woman who wants to trust and befriend people, but knows all too well the risks in a police state.

Doing further work for the actors is the film’s aforementioned aesthetic design, which surely makes the best use of colour of any film in 2012. Gold, blue, red, and green all have very specific purposes that supplement complex situations with an 
undercurrent of basic and powerful emotions, and they are used with incredible consistency and originality. The framing is loose and spacey, but far from accidental, and the sound stays as incidental as possible.

It’s a style that never even gestures towards genre trappings, and that makes Barbara feel like an unpredictable beast of its own. (In that regard, it distinguishes itself from a fellow Stasi-observation drama, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others.) By backgrounding plotting and effacing genre, it allows our focus and suspense to rest on characters’ motivations and decisions.

It works well enough to keep the words “slow” and “contemplative” from crossing our mind until after the fact, and it makes the ultimate decisions reached feel like real choices by real people with real consequences, instead of plot-ordained and self-conscious payoffs. To watch Barbara is to be engrossed with a story that examines choices between satisfaction and sacrifice, between trust and safety, with a stylistic schema that gracefully treats people as individuals.


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