Christian Petzold’s latest thriller threatens to cross over the line from minimalism to nihilism.
Although taking home this year’s Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival, the ultra-atmospheric “Barbara” is so stripped down that the plot nearly extinguishes itself.
Written by the director (collaborating with Harun Farocki), it is the story of a mysterious woman entering the life of an exiled doctor in Stasi dominated East Germany. The year is 1980 and Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss) shows up in a small, underfunded rural hospital under suspicious circumstances.
Actually, they are not that suspicious, since the brainiest doctor at the hospital, Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), is there under similar circumstances. They are there as part of the Stasi law enforcement procedure, exiled, and one-step away from a very undesirable post in a prison.
Nina Hoss is a longtime collaborator with Petzold who has racked up dozen of awards, including the Berlin Silver Bear, for her past films directed and/or written by him. This project is Germany’s official Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film.
As the plot unfolds, Andre makes overtures of friendship, which are rebuffed by the redoubtable Barbara. She is remarkably competent and remarkably distant, at the same time. She is concerned with doing a great job while at the same time concerned with not making too many friends.
These contradictions build the tension as the viewer becomes more and more curious about her real intentions. She is not there strictly because she practices medicine, but, then, neither is Andre.
As Andre reveals more and more about himself, including the fact that he is very over-qualified for his position, we learn more and more and Barbara’s ulterior motives as well. Unfortunately, these clues are revealed at an extremely slow pace and it is all one can do to stay awake to be ready for the next one.
A young female patient, Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) arrives at the hospital and is misdiagnosed in a manner that could be fatal. Barbara immediately sees that the teenager is suffering from meningitis and, making the correct diagnosis, saves her life.
As Stella attaches to Barbara, the doctor’s other life is revealed. Not only is she having an affair with a young West German but the two of them are plotting something, something that represents a major decision in Barbara’s life, something that will affect everyone around her.
The problem with this film is not that it is not heart felt. It is that it is simply too slow and there are not enough clues thrown out, to keep up the tension. Petzold has some great ideas, such as the constant wind, tearing through the trees, whenever Barbara sets out for a walk or a ride on her bike. The entire set is in upheaval.
Unfortunately, the filmmaker tries to use this effect too many times and the tension is lost. After seeing the windy sets several times, the wind becomes artificial and the viewer starts looking for the fan off the side of the set.
There is some of the feeling of the 2006 blockbuster, “The Lives of Others,” but not nearly enough. Whereas “Lives” succeeded in taking the audience into the broken heart of a person betrayed by their homeland, Barbara seems a little too reserved, a little too dignified, to be a real victim.
She insists on staying on top of the situation and so we have little feeling for her. In the end, she makes her surprise move but it is too little, too late.
Cinematography is by Hans Fromm, the man behind the lens on all of Petzold’s films, and is elegantly done. It is too bad he does not have more to work with in the screenplay department. Rainer Bock played the doctor in Michael Haneke’s ghostly “The White Ribbon,” and he stalks the sets, yet again, in this film.
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Directed by: Christian Petzold
Written by: Christian Petzold (Harun Farocki collaborator)
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld and Rainer Bock
Release Date: December 21, 2012
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for some sexual material, thematic elements and smoking
Run Time: 105 minutes
Language: German w/English subtitles