Barbara (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Jaimey Fisher
Produced by Florian Koerner von Gustorf and Michael Weber; directed by Christian Petzold; screenplay by Christian Petzold, with the collaboration of Harun Farocki; cinematography by Hans Fromm and Pascal Schmit; production design by Carsten Scharrmann, Kade Gruber, Nina Strathmann, and Bettina Saul; costume design by Anette Guther; edited by Bettina Böhler; music by Stefan Will; starring Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Rainer Bock, Christina Hecke, Mark Waschke, Peter Benedict, Jasna Fritzi Bauer, Susanne Bormann, and Claudia Geisler. Color, 100 min., German dialogue with English subtitles. An Adopt Films release.
Midway through Barbara, two cars are parked in a forest, one behind the other. Probably no filmmaker gets more mileage out of cars in stasis—the frustrated promise of a road movie—than Christian Petzold, Germany’s most decorated and celebrated filmmaker since 2000. Many of his films offer parked cars in key scenes, not a surprise for a director interested in a society and economy largely centered on the automobile. His Wolfsburg (2003), in fact, is a film about the official factory town of Volkswagen. In the very first scene, a car runs over a boy on a bike, grinding to a halt the car and the driver’s happy lifestyle. In Barbara, however, the two cars in the woods are uncharacteristic of Petzold in that they are historical. The first is an expensive, early 1980s Mercedes, while the second is a notoriously compact, lightweight Trabant, a make that dominated East German roadways, more or less unchanged from the time its most popular model premiered (in the early 1960s) through the late 1980s. These cars, and their surprise meeting in the forest, illustrate what is both familiar and surprising in Barbara. While the film demonstrates the abiding importance of cars and mobility for Petzold, it is also his, and the Berlin School’s, first historical drama.
The Berlin School is a loose group of filmmakers that has, since 2000, been credited with reviving politically and artistically ambitious filmmaking in Germany. Many see it as resuscitating the concerns and approaches of the 1970s New German Cinema of R. W. Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, and Werner Herzog. This first foray into historical drama may not be as convincing or provocative as Petzold’s surgical dissections of contemporary Germany (like Wolfsburg or his better known “Ghost trilogy” of State I Am In , Ghosts , and Yella ), but it is one of the most fascinating recent productions from Europe, not least because it pointedly expresses antagonism toward many of Germany’s most successful recent films. The historical moment that Petzold engages in Barbara is provocatively not the Nazi milieu of many of Germany’s most celebrated exports (like Downfall [Oliver Hieschbiegel, 2005], The Counterfeiters [Stefan Ruzowitsky, 2007], or even Michael Haneke’s acclaimed The White Ribbon , anticipating Nazism as it does). Rather, Petzold takes up the early 1980s in East Germany, a key moment in that socialist country’s slide into the economic and cultural doldrums, a slide that culminated in the 1989–1990 conclusion of the Cold War on the rubble of the Berlin Wall. That same early-Eighties moment, a kind of leaden time in East Germany, also happens to be the focus of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 The Lives of Others, which, with Ulrich Mühe—probably Germany’s greatest actor at the time—won the 2007 foreign-language Oscar.
That Barbara was this year’s Oscar submission from Germany shows how important this moment in time was to Germans and how its history is relatively neglected. By taking up that period in an entirely different vein, Barbara has been regarded as a deliberate and sharply critical reply to The Lives of Others. Barbara makes a point of setting its action in the countryside, in contrast to Lives’ retro-cool Berlin. The eponymous heroine, played by Petzold regular Nina Hoss, is a well-educated, highly competent doctor who has been reassigned from East Germany’s most famous Berlin hospital to a rural clinic—her punishment for having attempted to flee to the West. Clearly out of place in the countryside—beautifully shot in 35mm as it is by Petzold’s regular cinematographer Hans Fromm—Barbara initially holds herself aloof from her small-town colleagues. Eventually, however, she starts to fall for the head doctor, André (Ronald Zehrfeld), who may or may not be working with the East German secret police, the Stasi, in keeping her under surveillance.
The Stasi form the fulcrum of many films about East Germany, at least since The Lives of Others. In Barbara, hints of the Stasi are present from the very first scene, in which a long take invites us to contemplate Barbara from a distance, implying that someone is watching her. And, indeed, André and Klaus (Rainer Bock) are watching her from above, a privileged perspective that is paradoxically distant but always close, as the Stasi would be for anyone perceived as a political threat to the state. Petzold’s earlier films on contemporary Germany often thematize surveillance, be it by workplace supervisors, security cameras, or characters’ internalized policing of themselves, reflecting Petzold’s professed interest in Gilles Deleuze’s societies of control. In Barbara, however, surveillance is materialized in the overtly political circumstances of East Germany. The Stasi treats Barbara brutally, including painful, heartrending scenes in which she, with minimal provocation, is subjected to invasions of her apartment and strip searches. But Petzold also gives us scenes in which the Stasi are made to seem both highly fallible and surprisingly human, leaving the representation ambiguous or, better said, suspended—just as Barbara’s decision is suspended about whether to flee East Germany when given the opportunity. It is clear that part of Barbara wants to stay at the clinic she initially despised but that needs her work—work from which she derives demonstrable satisfaction. But she also wants nothing more than to escape this country where “one can never be happy,” as she declares in a key scene set in a room at the resonantly named “Interhotel.”
With Barbara, Petzold has, as in his most effective films such as Yella or Jerichow (2008), created a woman who is strong-willed and highly capable but also suddenly hesitant, ruminating about the choices before her. Petzold seems fascinated by these crucial moments of decision that people, especially women, face—decisions that not only are personal but also political and/or economic. Frequently, the decisions involve either conforming to or resisting the prevailing mores, with resistance usually involving an escape that is fraught with danger. These recurring decisions often come down to a loose love triangle (as in Yella or Jerichow and arguably State I Am In) that is not only closely observed but also emphatically political. In Barbara,even as her attraction to André grows, she must listen to him expound on his belief in the workers’ state and what the educated elite (like doctors) owe it. Exercising his trademark restraint, Petzold explores the political stakes without didacticism or labored exposition. Meanwhile, Barbara continues to meet her lover Jörg (Mark Waschke) from the West and continues, with the forward momentum of so many Petzold characters, to follow the perilous plan to flee with him.
The Mercedes of that first scene in fact has delivered to East Germany this Jörg, who has parked so he and Barbara can rendezvous surreptitiously in the forest. Jörg’s West German colleague Gerhard (Peter Benedict) keeps watch at the car and is, at first, nervous when the Trabant also pulls up on the isolated road. That car does not hold a threatening East-German authority, however, but rather an avuncular old man admiring the Western luxury car he likely has never seen close up. He asks how fast it can drive and whether it has heating and even upholstery (in short supply in Trabants). His admiration of such minutiae recalls the haptic pleasures of consumerism that East German citizens never managed in equal measure with their West German counterparts. These pleasures of the West that fascinated many Easterners and certainly contributed to East Germany’s downfall, prey upon even an educated professional like Barbara, as we see through the make-up and tobacco goodies Jörg has delivered her. In one key scene, Barbara discusses emigration from the East with another ambitious young woman who is having an affair with Gerhard. Together, the two women look with palpable astonishment at a massive, glossy, mail-order catalogue and its rich plenitude of petty objects.
Barbara seems to recognize something of herself in this young woman, dreaming in deluded fashion of the West and its consumer goods. But over the course of the film she also sees herself in the young dissident Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), who is brought to the rural clinic with meningitis after attempting to flee a forced labor camp. Through Stella, again, Petzold refuses to look the other way from aspects of the East German regime’s brutality and violence against its perceived enemies. Barbara helps heal the rebellious and difficult Stella, and recognizes in herself some of the younger woman’s own contemptuous disgust at East Germany. But Barbara also realizes she is helping people like Stella, and it is through their mutual work that she comes to love André. Even as he makes the brutality of the regime clear, Petzold insists he wanted to depict an East Germany in which its people, even partially, still believed, perceiving themselves and the country as one not only of confinement and angry frustration, but also of happiness and at least intermittent satisfaction. Petzold has emphasized that East Germany’s popular genre movies, like any country’s, for instance, were made in vivid and celebratory color, a pointed criticism of the relatively narrow, drab color palette of The Lives of Others. No matter the (perceived) drudgery and drabness of our lives, we all dream in color, something Petzold takes seriously and unfolds beautifully in Barbara.
Jaimey Fisher is Associate Professor of German and Cinema and Technocultural Studies, and director of Cinema and Technocultural Studies, at the University of California, Davis.
Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine