“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” President Ronald Reagan, West Germany 1987
The Yalta Conference during WWII resulted in the allies dividing Germany into occupation zones to prevent it from threatening Europe ever again. The result was an East Germany left to wallow under the iron fisted grip of communism for over 40 years. The film Barbara is a portrait of a woman who lives in a country that can only persist by crushing man’s natural inclination to be free. But it will take more than an overly controlling government to squash Barbara’s desire to live the life she chooses.
Barbara (Nina Hoss) was a doctor at a prestigious hospital in East Berlin. After making it known that she wanted to leave for the West, officials banished her to a small country hospital where is watched closely by Stasi Officer Klaus Schütz (Ranier Bock) and Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), the lead physician at the clinic. But Barbara doesn’t plan on staying; she is secretly working on a plot to escape, even while the secret police are tailing her. As time passes however, she is starting to warm to the country hospital, its patients, and most of all her colleague Andre. With her impending escape on the horizon, Barbara must make a fateful decision that could change her life forever.
Barbara takes place in 1980, only nine years before the Berlin wall came a tumblin’ down. It opens with her already in exile at the quiet country hospital. The film doesn’t say why she’s sent there, but with a little research I found out that she was removed from a cushy job at a Berlin hospital, because she officially requested to leave the lovely German Democratic Republic — so much for democracy.
It appears as if Barbara doesn’t care one way or another about her banishment, she’s perceived as cold and distant by the staff — just the way she wants it. Her cool demeanor is only a protective façade to keep people at a distance so she can plan her escape to Denmark without her colleagues growing suspicious. Any of them could be spying on her for the Secret Police.
As Andre gets to know Barbara, he begins regretting the fact that he has to keep watch over her, especially after her diagnosis of a young girl named Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer). Stella is a prisoner at one of the work camps, and Andre has seen her come to the hospital many times with one fake illness after another. This time however, she isn’t just trying to get out of working at the camp; she has a serious case of meningitis. If it weren’t for Barbara, Andre would’ve sent her back to camp where she would’ve died. As a result, Stella must remain in the hospital for a few days, and during this time Barbara develops a fondness for the young girl. The two become very close, and Barbara risks everything to help Stella in her time of need.
Barbara is also starting to trust Andre. Initially she thought he was cut from the same cloth as the hardened Stasi officer Schütz, who enjoys the power he has over her. But Barbara quickly sees that Andre is different, that he is a good doctor who tenderly cares for his patients, even on his days off. As the two grow closer, Barbara must decide if she will stay in this small country hospital or risk it all to obtain her freedom.
The performances are fantastic! Hoss and Zehrfeld have great onscreen chemistry, and it doesn’t hurt that Zehrfeld is gorgeous (no offense to my sweet and gorgeous husband). Writer/director Christian Petzold has crafted characters that feel real; from the way they carefully choose their words, to the emotional restraint they show in an environment where eyes are everywhere. There are moments where just a few words are spoken, followed by several moments of silence. That space doesn’t need to be filled with empty dialogue, nor does it seem odd; it fits the characters as well as the situation they are in.
The 1080p/1.85:1 Blu-ray transfer is beautiful, with the greenery of the East German countryside front and center. It almost makes a person want to live there — if it weren’t for the Communists and the secret police. The DTS-HD 5.1 master audio is clear, highlighting the bold German dialect. The English SDH subtitles are easy to read, and doesn’t take you out of the film the way hard to see subtitles can. I have always imagined East Germany during this time as a colorless place full of misery, but the people who lived there during the occupation somehow found joy — even under the thumb of Communism.
Barbara is a wonderful little German import that shows the strength of the human spirit even in the most dire of circumstances. What’s more, it puts a human face on a period in history marred by the evil that demoralized an entire nation.
2013, Kino Lorber, 105 minutes, PG-13 (2012)
VIDEO: 1.85:1 (1080p) AUDIO: DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (German) SUBTITLES: English (SDH)
EXTRAS: None ACCOMPLICES: IMDB