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Set in East Germany in the early 1980s, the new film from renowned director Christian Petzold (Jerichow) is a suspenseful chamber piece about an accomplished Berlin physician, banished to a rural hospital as punishment, who is torn between the promise of escape across the border and her growing love for a fellow colleague — who may be planning to betray her to the secret police.
For more about Barbara and the Barbara Blu-ray release, see Barbara Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on November 18, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Director: Christian Petzold
Writer: Christian Petzold
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Rainer Bock, Christina Hecke, Jasna Fritzi Bauer, Mark Waschke
» See full cast & crew
Barbara Blu-ray Review
Going beyond the Hippocratic oath.
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, November 18, 2013
Of all the films about life in East Germany—and there have been some great ones lately, including The Lives of Others and Good Bye Lenin! —2012's Barbara is probably the most austere. The film, directed by Christian Petzold, intentionally side-skirts melodrama and comes off as a cold, stern anti-thriller. At least, at first. There is emotion here eventually—along with some low-key police state thrills—but Petzold is careful to make sure the film earns it, holding back where other filmmakers might've poured on the schmaltz and artificial action. The end result is an artful, realist portrayal of work, love, and sacrifice under the oppressive GDR government.
The setting is 1980, in a provincial East German town on the Baltic Sea. It might as well be Siberia for Barbara (Nina Hoss), a formerly renowned physician who's been relocated to a small clinic here as an unofficial punishment for having had the gall to request an exit visa in hopes of living with her boyfriend Jörg (Mark Waschke) in West Germany. It's hinted that she's served jail time and that all of her friends have disavowed her. "If she were six, you'd call her sulky," says undercover Stasi Officer Klaus Schütz (Rainer Boch), watching her from the clinic's second story as she sits alone on a park bench, unwilling to show up even a minute early for her first resentful day of work. Officer Schütz has his eye on her, but he's out to recruit other eyes as well, including Barbara's new boss, Dr. André Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld), who stands with him looking out the window at the would-be defector, having just been asked to spy on her.
The film largely revolves around Barbara and Reiser's tense and increasingly romantically charged working relationship. Barbara is initially as sulky as stated—clinical would probably be a better word—and Reiser exerts a lot of effort in fruitless attempts to get her to open up to him. (Including opening up to her; he has his own sob story about how he came to work in this backwater town.) Is he just trying to gather intel, or are there potential feelings involved as well? Regardless, Reisner is genuinely impressed with Barbara's talent and compassion when Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), a pregnant teenaged runaway from a Socialist work camp, shows up at the hospital with hard-to-diagnose symptoms. Reiser thinks the girl is faking in order to avoid being sent back, but Barbara realizes Stella actually has bacterial meningitis caused by tick bites. She becomes an advocate for the girl, even reading to her from Huck Finn, a novel with themes of escape and personal freedom that apply just as aptly in East Germany as they do to Mark Twain's American South.
Keeping the film from being a straight drama are the numerous paranoiac touches that Petzold puts in the script he wrote with co-writer Harun Farocki. He shows us furtive, possibly dangerous acts out of context, and leaves it to us to put the pieces together. Why is Barbara accepting a packet of cash from a waitress in a caffe restroom? Why is she hiding the money in her chimney and under that rock next to the crucifix outside of town? Where is she riding off to in the middle of the night on her bicycle? And what is she planning during her secret rendezvous with her lover, Jörg? At every turn, Officer Schütz is watching her, showing up unannounced to search her flat and, well, her cavities too, subjecting her to humiliations in an attempt to break her will. As we get a clearer picture of what, exactly, is going on, Petzold slowly ratchets up the intensity, throwing moral and romantic obstacles in front of Barbara and forcing her to make some down-to-the-wire, life-altering decisions.
Nina Hoss is astounding in this role; she's guarded and stern, building a barricade of Berlin Wall proportions around her emotions. When that wall cracks, though, and those emotions force themselves out, they're all the more powerful. Ronald Zehrfeld is great too as the chisel that chips away at her. He's sympathetic, and we want to believe that his character is developing genuine feelings, but he also nails that ambiguous, uneasy quality which makes us —and Barbara—unsure of how far we can trust him. And then there's Rainer Boch, the very face of unfeeling, uncaring bureaucratic officiousness. But even his Officer Schütz is human; behind the threats and procedure and the power given to him by the state, he's a broken man with issues of his own. Petzold's particular brilliance here is in the way he coaxes the humanity out of all three of these characters, reminding us that behind the walls of ideology and duty and government, there's only us—people, just trying to survive and, when we're at our best, able to bring a little happiness to others too.
Barbara Blu-ray, Video Quality
Barbara cycles onto Blu-ray with a 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that looks great, minus one or two minor issues. Shot on 35mm, the film retains its naturally fine grain structure here, and there are no tell-tale signs of contrast/color boosting or edge enhancement. The bare image needs no embellishment. The picture is reasonably sharp throughout, with fine textures easily visible in the characters' clothing and facial features. Occasionally, the picture is so sharp that mere 1080p has trouble resolving all of the detail. In some early scenes, for instance, the weft of Barbara's knit sweater is so crisp that a bit of moire/shimmer is introduced. When there is softness in the picture, it's clearly attributable to the film stock and lenses used— and maybe some misplaced focus—and not any defect in the transfer. However, there is perhaps a bit too much compression here; in a few darker sequences, digital noise appears amid the grain, and there are even a few quick instances of mild macroblocking. None of this is particularly noticeable, though, unless you're going out of your way to look for it.
Barbara Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Unfortunately, Lorber Films/Adopt Films' Blu-ray release doesn't include any lossless or uncompressed audio options, featuring only a German-language Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track. It's worth noting that the film's German Blu-ray edition included this track only as a backup, but defaulted to a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. So, a lossless, multichannel option does exist, and we have to wonder why Adopt Films wasn't able to use it. The good news is that since the film is heavily dialogue-driven and almost entirely bereft of a musical score, there's not much here that would take advantage of the extra clarity and dynamism that a lossless mix would provide. The actors' voices are clear and clean, and there are no balancing problems whatsoever. That said, you can tell this is lossy audio, particularly in high-end sounds—like wind rustling leaves in the trees—which lack fullness and can sometimes be a little harsh. (Never distracting, but a bit brighter than you'd expect.) Of course, we're also missing the rear channel involvement we would've gotten if Adopt Films had secured the use of the 5.1 mix. Disappointing. The other odd choice here is the decision to hardcode the English subtitles, which appear in white, easy-to-read lettering.
Barbara Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
While the German Blu-ray edition featured nearly forty-five minutes of "making-of" material, there's not a single supplement on this disc from Adopt Films. Not even a trailer. The only option on the main menu is "Play Feature."
Barbara Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Considering the film's premise—a doctor behind the iron curtain must chose between her freedom or the future of one of her patients—Barbara could've easily become a melodramatic mess, heavy on undeserved emotions and over-heightened action. Director Christian Petzhold has wonderful restraint, though, keeping this story gripping without resorting to cheap narrative tricks, which makes the eventual catharsis even more affecting. Few films treat life in East Germany with such subtlety and realism, so if this particular era interests you, Barbara is definitely worth checking out. Adopt Films' Blu-ray is the definition of bare boned—there are no supplements, and the only audio track is a lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 mix—but the film certainly stands on its own. Recommended.
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Barbara Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Barbara Blu-ray - October 14, 2013
Adopt Films and Kino Lorber have officially announced that they will release on Blu-ray acclaimed German director Christian Petzold's award winning film Barbara (2012), starring Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, and Rainer Bock. The release will be available for purchase ...
• Kino Lorber Blu-ray in November: Sokurov, Petzold, Leeds - August 29, 2013
Kino Lorber will add three titles to their Blu-ray catalog in November: acclaimed Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov's groundbreaking film Russian Ark (2002), German director Christian Petzold's Barbara (2012), and David Leeds' classic western Shoot the Sun Down ...
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