Germany (2012) Dir. Christian Petzold
In 1980’s East Germany, Barbara (Nina Hoss), a doctor from Berlin, is sent to work in a small rural clinic as punishment for wanting to emigrate to the West. Under the watchful eye and strict control of the Stasi Barbara finds it hard to trust anybody, remaining aloof around her colleagues. The chief physician Dr André Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld) tries to win Barbara over by order of the Stasi but she remains hesitant to open up. However her excellent work as a doctor forces Reiser to change his opinion of Barbara who is meanwhile plotting to escape to Demark with her lover Jörg (Mark Waschke).
The fourth collaboration director Christian Petzold and actress Nina Hoss is a slow burning drama that takes us back to a fraught period of German history that many of us on the outside would never be able to empathise with.
A less political sister film to the mighty Oscar winning The Lives Of Others, Petzold’s film looks at one woman’s struggle to keep hold of a her hope, heart and humanity in a world in which all three are in short supply under a totalitarian regime. As one might expect it is a bleak picture set in bleak times and this depiction of austerity may prove to be a slightly tedious watch for some viewers.
Barbara is forced to live in a meagre apartment with meagre amenities as a result of her temerity to want a better life in the less controlled West Germany, and is under the scrutiny of the Stasi. If she should be out of recorded sight (i.e not at work) for a prolonged period of time, she is hunted down by the Stasi and subject to her house being searched for contraband and body cavity searches on her own person. And they wonder why she wants to leave?
As a result Barbara refuses to ingratiate herself with her colleagues at the hospital, fearing that no-one can be trusted. Reiser is at the top of her suspect list, an astute observation, since he has been asked by the Stasi to glean information out of her.
When a young runaway Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) is brought in, Barbara defies Reiser’s diagnosis of malingering to reveal the girl has meningitis. Barbara reads her Huckleberry Finn, a book with a subtle encouraging message for the youngster.
From then on Stella demands only Barbara treats her, and Reiser recognises her worth as a doctor. In the meantime, Barbara is able to attend a few carefully planned trysts with Jörg to finalise plans for their escape but circumstances at the clinic start to make Barbara rethink her loyalties.
Much like the aforementioned The Lives Of Others Petzold doesn’t hold back in portraying East Germany as a soulless and grey place, using a muted colour palette and avoiding the use of a musical soundtrack to lift the mood or paint the scene. The film moves quite slowly and its dour atmosphere makes the hundred minute running time seem longer.
There is a lot of repetition, from Barbara’s resigned lone bicycle rides to the clinic to her secretive trips to prepare for her eventual escape, along with the intrusive and strict procedure of the Stasi upon her return, but it is necessary to depict the drudgery and struggle of her life in the oppressive East. However it is carefully framed and shot and the performances are nuanced and rich with realism.
Barbara cuts a lonely figure through Nina Hoss’s tense and stoic body language, sitting straight and rigidly, smoking her expensive cigarettes from the West – an illicit present from Jörg – avoiding all contact with her colleagues. Barbara may be a loner seen as a dangerous subversive, but Hoss portrays her with dignity and the steely determination of a person torn between her own desires and her duty as a doctor to help her patients, with whom she has a silent empathy.
Reiser is the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing, although he isn’t so keen to be a Stasi informant, carrying within him desires to escape the East, specifically to Prague to see Rembrandt’s art. Ronald Zehrfeld plays him with a deliberate ambiguity to fool both the viewer and Barbara as to his true intentions, which eventually become compromised.
With the de-emphasis on the political aspect of Stasi controlled East Germany, Barbara is a low key character study that has an enriching story to tell, but needs just a little more in the way of plot developments and serious crises to put it in the same league as The Lives Of Others. As it stands, it works very well as a companion piece to said Oscar winner and provides a secondary insight into modern German history.