January 10, 2013

MOVIES: Barbara (Christian Petzold, 2012)

The German film Barbara is very understated, and relies less on big moments or confrontational dialogue than on quiet exchanges and subtle facial expressions.

It's set in East Germany in 1980, where Barbara (Nina Hoss) is reporting for her first day of work at a hospital in "the provinces." She was once a successful doctor in Berlin, but has been banished to the country after spending some time in prison; we're never explicitly told why, but the implication is that she'd tried to escape to the West.

Her colleague Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) tries to be friendly, but Barbara is withdrawn by nature, and her recent experiences have made her even more paranoid than most East Germans; she suspects that Andre is reporting on her to the Stasi agents who follow her and pop by occasionally for surprise strip searches.

The movie is mostly a low-key character study, and a look at what life was like in a society where paranoia was the norm. It's hard to fit into a new community or to trust your new neighbors when anyone could be a government agent, especially if you really do have secrets to keep.

Hoss is faced with one of the toughest challenges an actor can face. She's obliged to keep everything hidden from those around her, showing no emotion, no hint of what she's really thinking, while letting us in the audience have some insight into her character. And she does so beautifully; it's a striking performance, filled with the constant tension of a woman who knows she's being watched and fears that she'll never find a road to happiness.

This one probably isn't going to play anywhere but the largest cities, but it's certainly worth watching for when it arrives on DVD.

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