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2012 | 105 min | PG-13 | 1.85:1



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Theatrical release date

 21 December, 2012
 28 September, 2012

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Barbara Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, March 21, 2013

Christian Petzold has proven himself to be a nuanced filmmaker with a specific interest in the heartbeat of his characters. With “Yella” and “Jerichow,” he’s displayed tight command of mood and visual communication, using body language to express what long passages of dialog cannot possibly convey. Even when the material doesn’t quite stimulate the senses, Petzold shows an investment in the life of his screenplay, refusing to hand his audience easy answers. “Barbara” isn’t a tightly wound story of sacrifice, yet its distance is alluring, retaining secrets and motivations, building to a satisfying conclusion. Petzold may not summon a gripping pace, but his concentration on the minutiae of behavior remains riveting.

In East Germany during 1980, Barbara (Nina Hoss) is a physician sent to work in a remote hospital to pay for crimes against the country, requiring monitoring from Klaus (Rainer Block), a Stasi official. Adjusting to her new routine, Barbara begins work with chief physician Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), another troubled soul trying to make the best out of a dispiriting situation, drawn to the new employee and her curious aloofness. With Jorg (Mark Waschke), her West German lover, in the midst of arranging her escape out of the oppressive country, Barbara waits patiently, hiding money in her apartment and keeping a tight command of her emotions, despite befriending troubled youth detention center escapee Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), surprising Andre with her skills of diagnosis. Attempting to keep a low profile, Andre’s seemingly romantic intentions begin to thaw Barbara, who begins to realize the enormity of her future actions and the effect they’ll have on those she’ll leave behind.

Despite much of the film set inside hospital hallways and grim apartments, “Barbara” evokes its time and place quite skillfully. It’s a picture of long takes and minimal exposition, asking the viewer to relax and observe a subtle sense of paranoia that’s keeping the lead character busy, watching her build a plan of escape without triggering outside notice, despite all eyes fixated on her every move. It’s a cold, misty movie, spare and foreboding, but there’s always a glowing core of contemplation that sustains interest in the story, with Barbara failing to conceal her concerns at the hospital and disgust with Stasi invasions despite her concentrated efforts to do so. To grasp the understated power of “Barbara” is to watch the characters communicate through stillness, as any outward act of emotion would bring attention to feelings or activities that shouldn’t be exposed.

Petzold build “Barbara” gradually, refusing explanation until late in the film, trusting his audience to decode behaviors that include Barbara burying money, meeting up with Jorg for forest and hotel trysts, and warming to Andre, a handsome but haunted doctor finding his life enhanced by the new hire’s intelligence and beauty, trying to catch her attention any way he can. It’s not a puzzle, but there’s a palpable restraint that Petzold employs to inhale the material in full, using confusion and delay to soak up atmosphere and question perplexing motives before reality comes into view. The cast also contributes wonderfully to the movie, finding Hoss triumphantly stoic as the conflicted physician, providing the effort with a range of feelings that squeeze out of her pores, never once allowed to bloom onscreen. Zehrfeld is also quite effective as the smitten doctor, playing notes of disappointment beautifully as Andre is rebuffed by Barbara, attempting to deduce her remoteness.

The picture eventually spreads out into the lives of others, greeting Stella’s sickly misfit status that sickens Barbara, who tries to nurse the girl back to health through medicine and positive reinforcement before the government steps in to return her to hard labor. There’s also a subplot with suicide case that’s meant to tie Barbara and Andre together, yet doesn’t provide the strength of conflict Petzold imagines, slackening the story as it nears the conclusion. Actually, “Barbara” features a few rocky moments that force the movie out of its pocket of intimacy, a place where Petzold’s command of timing and tension is often superbly realized.

Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Rainer Bock, Christina Hecke, Peter Weiss, Jasna Fritzi Bauer
Director: Christian Petzold

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