Chrisitan Petzold's (Yella, Jerichow) Barbara reunites him with his frequent leading actor Nina Hoss for a tense, but quietly measured, look at one woman's life in 1980s East Germany. Hoss plays Barbara, a doctor whose incarceration for an unnamed crime forces her to be assigned to a small provincial hospital. By day, she works under the authority of André (Ronald Zehrfeld), another doctor whose own reasons for toiling in this understaffed, poorly supplied facility eventually come to light. In her evenings, Barbara is under constant threat of having her body and apartment searched by the secret police, whose suspicions are not unfounded, even if their methods are questionable.
As the film unfolds, we see Barbara meeting with a secret lover. She's also stashing money, both at her apartment and under rocks. Petzold is careful to not let many secrets shake loose too early in his story, preferring a slow, suspenseful intrigue to build. We watch as Barbara lives her double life, bristling against André's attempts to connect with her at work while planning something in her time away from the hospital. What ends up being most revealing about these characters is the reactions they have to the patients who come under their care.
Barbara is Petzold's best film to date. It contains multiple small revelations, each one shifting our understanding of Barbara and André situations and their inner lives. It's astonishing, for instance, when Barbara has a second visit with her lover, how Petzold is able to completely redefine the relationship without leaning on needless exposition. Most of the film pulls off this trick, offering up depth of character sans confessional pronouncements. It's a film that requires a patient commitment in order to keep engaged with the slow changes in its story, but it's very much worth the time and effort.
Barbara screens at the NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium (in the Portland Art Museum) as a part of their Kinofest PDX: New German Cinema series on Friday , October 5th at 7:30pm. More info available here.
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