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Political malpractice, and healing


Nina Hoss’s wanly pretty countenance in Christian Petzold’s German movie Barbara usually ranges narrowly from strained to severe to stolid endurance, particularly in the picture’s first half. Hoss, playing the title character, is very persuasive in her portrait of suspicious wariness. Dr. Barbara Wolff has good reason for her demeanor.

The physician has been relegated to a remote hospital for children and adolescents in the countryside of the German Democratic Republic in 1980, sent down as part of a punishment for some unspecified political crime. Under the continued scrutiny of the East German Stasi, the secret security service, she is subject to arbitrary searches of her small assigned apartment and her person. Everyone seems to know this. Her landlady is unfriendly. André (Ronald Zehrfeld), the very personable and friendly young doctor in charge of her service, is not only aware of her history and situation, he’s a part of the Stasi’s surveillance program. (He’s got his own troubled history that landed him in this backwater.) Watching her from his office window on her first day at the hospital, Andre is told by a policeman, “Her incarceration decimated her circle of friends.” And Petzold photographs Barbara in an extreme long shot, sitting alone on a bench amid the grounds and roadways.

When necessary—as it too often is—she is quietly, even wearily, submissive, but she’s inwardly unbowed. She declines to sit with André and his colleagues in the cafeteria and only grudgingly accepts a ride home with him. All this Hoss conveys with muted authority, and with subtly varied expressions and inflections. Her eyes evoke the doctor’s defenses and insights. Hoss is an accomplished film actress. And Zehrfeld offers a skillfully complementary performance. Behind the easy geniality, his André well appreciates the moral and practical difficulties of his position. Barbara may have her reasons for mistrusting him, but André knows the political system’s heavy impositions on his duties, his professional pride, and his feelings. And that they’re both trapped by it.

Barbara’s troubles don’t prevent her from caring for, and about, her young patients or from respecting her colleague’s professional skills and commitment. When a rebellious girl from a local work camp (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) is brought in very seriously ill, the two of them collaborate easily. But this case will test their consciences, and endanger Barbara.

Petzold’s film unfolds in a measured, efficient manner. He mostly keeps that tone, even when he focuses on dark or upsetting events. He also keeps a lot of information to himself. (He wrote the screenplay.) Petzold, who has something of a reputation for emotional restraint and reticence, doesn’t give us important facts from his protagonists’ past and present. Barbara’s dangerous intrigue with a man from the West, with whom she has an intimate relationship, remains only partially explained, even at the picture’s end.

But the director’s calm attention to seemingly mundane details and patterns eventually develops into a portrayal of character under duress. A few years ago, The Lives of Others detailed the crisis in a Stasi officer’s existence as his surveillance of a married couple began to alter his emotions and ideas. In that movie, naturalistic drama began to take an ironic moral turn. Petzold’s less intense, more distanced method serves to define the plight of his characters and to draw our attention to their attempts to maintain dignity and courage amid impressed accommodation.

Barbara may end a little ambiguously, but its sympathies and allegiances aren’t in doubt.

Watch the trailer for Barbara

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