Sold as a spiritual successor to The Lives of Others, that masterful 2006 dissection of East Germany under the tyranny of the Stasi which assumedly everyone has seen by now, Christian Petzold’s Barbara takes a similarly personal look at this dark period in recent German history, but with none of the scale that has made Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film a modern classic.
Nina Hoss, looking intense and wearied, plays Barbara, a top East Berlin doctor banished to a provincial hospital for offending the powers-that-be with her desires to defect to the West. Adapting poorly to country life, Barbara finds herself under the command of chief paediatrician André (Ronald Zehrfeld), a handsome, bearlike and good-natured man who despite this is charged with keeping the Stasi informed as to Barbara’s comings and goings.
An excellent doctor with a strong bedside manner unexpected of someone so closed-off and bitter, Barbara finds herself torn between her duty to her patients and her desire to escape East Germany to freedom and her West German lover. But her relationship with André and the ever-watchful Stasi complicate matters.
Shot in tidy, steady frames, in natural colours that evoke the beautifully bland countryside of 1980s Germany, Barbara is a finely constructed film that rarely wows with its imagery. The historical details, from costumes and cars to the actions of the intrusive Stasi, add to the film’s honesty and its feeling of oppression, but they are not exactly eye candy. “You can’t be happy here,” she tells her lover when he offers to stay in East Germany with her, but her statement has all the punch as if she had emphasised the universal “you”, meaning everyone, anyone. It’s easy to see why.
The script is well-written for the most part, with little superfluous dialogue and two broadly developed lead characters, but the story is stupefyingly predictable. If you haven’t worked out exactly where it’s going 30 minutes from the conclusion, it’s possible you have never seen a film before. There are other difficulties too; like so many dramas in recent years the film relies on the use of previously established works of art to underscore its own story. Huckleberry Finn emphasises the dream of escape. Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp reveals both how good a doctor André is, but also his emotional depth. In the end, a short story by Ivan Turgenev serves as the catalyst for the film’s final moments. It’s all a little too easy.
But Barbara is never less than watchable, and Hoss manages to make a difficult character deeply relatable. Zehrfeld and she have great on-screen chemistry, and it is the film’s greatest draw. The supporting cast are similarly strong. Jasna Fritzi Bauer manages to not over-do it as a temperamental young patient determined to stay in hospital and not return to her labour camp. Rainer Bock shifts believably from glaring, evil Stasi officer to weak, almost pitiable man.
A finely told drama, Barbara never manages to be more than that, and as a commentary on life in the former East Germany it drowns in the shadow of The Lives of Others. If it is to be remembered, it will likely be for the utterly unsuitable choice of closing credits song, a soulful ballad by ’70s American R&B group Chic. Whether you enjoy the film or not, you will leave the cinema scratching your head at who let the filmmakers pick that number.
(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)