During the opening sequence of “Barbara”, we come to know that she is being watched – and she knows too well. She lives in East Germany in 1980, and it is an oppressive world in which the life can be very difficult if you are marked by the authorities. It is always possible that she can be exposed and arrested at any time, and she should be careful and discreet while hiding her thoughts and feelings in front of others.
She is Dr. Barbara Wolff(Nina Hoss), who once worked at a big hospital in East Berlin. Because she applied for the permission to leave East Germany for living with her West German lover, she was incarcerated for a while, and now she is transferred to some small rural town near the Baltic Sea. When she arrives at the town, she is watched from the distance by Dr. André Reiser(Ronald Zehrfeld) and a Stasi Officer Klaus Schütz(Rainer Bock), who orders Reiser to watch on her for getting any interesting information about her.
Although she is a new staff member who has just arrives, her work at André’s department goes smoothly from her very first day as she makes the round with the other doctors and medical students. She also shrewdly notices that a runaway teenager named Stella(Jasna Fritzi Bauer) is not malingering but really sick because of meningitis, and she makes it sure that this wild girl gets a right treatment. Appreciating her medical knowledge and skills, André’ approaches to her like a good colleague, but Barbara is no fool and she bluntly points out his motive during their conversation, although his kind words seem to be sincere.
She cannot be easily relaxed – even when she is alone at her new residence. It is apparent that her landlady is not someone she can trust, and Schütz can suddenly come into her home at any moment to search for anything suspicious. During the search, she even goes through a strip search at the bathroom, which is a really humiliating experience to her.
This hardships can eventually turn into mere annoying things in her new daily life, but, the problem is, Barbara is planning on something as suspected by the authorities, and that is why she should be very watchful in her every move like a secret agent while advancing her plan step by step. She receives money through a secret rendezvous at a restaurant far from the town. She has a clandestine picnic meeting with her lover in the forest near the town. Her lover later tells her about how she will be able to escape, and she becomes more nervous as the clock is ticking.
The story is basically a thriller plot, and the director/screenplay writer Christian Petzold ably keeps the tension being mounted below the quiet atmosphere of seemingly relaxing country town. East Germany during the 1980s is vividly presented through small details and subtle touches, and the anxiety inside its heroine is more amplified by the absence of music, which is sometimes disrupted by the sudden appearance of sounds including a car engine noise heard from the outside. We come to sense that this is a harsh world where trust can be a very dangerous thing; they can be nice to each other but it is not easy for them to be open to each other even if they want to.
The movie is helped a lot by Nina Hoss’s excellent performance which is finely tuned to the oppressive environment surrounding her. Barbara looks cool and detached at first, but Hoss slowly and palpably reveals the feelings and thoughts glimpsed behind her jaded austerity. The mood becomes a little brighter whenever she tentatively allows her emotions to be shown to other people, and her secret meetings with her lover reveal to us how much she has been suffocated by her society – and how much she has been yearning for getting out of the country and living with a man she loves.
But she also cares about the people around her – especially André. While working together, she and André come to respect each other as the professionals who have been frustrated about their work environment. Impressed by Barbara’s diagnosis on Stella, André shows her his private medical laboratory, and he becomes more open to her as approaching to her closer. He senses Barbara is hiding many things from him, but he does not seem to mind about that and it looks like he is really fond of her.
But can he be trusted? He is surely a nice guy, and he does not hide the fact from her that he will probably report anything about her as ordered, but that still does not mean that André is someone Barbara can rely on. Even when he tells about an unfortunate case in his past, she instantly responds to his story with reasonable suspicion. Nina Hoss and her co-actor Ronald Zehrfeld deftly handle their scenes filled with nuances and suggestions, and their interactions are always compelling to watch; they like each other, but there is always the barrier between them during their conversations.
“Barbara” is one of those quiet but powerful films that will grow on you after watching it. Although I will stick to my initial 3-star rating after the first viewing in 2011, I must admit that I come to admire its performances and direction more after my recent second watching. Though I could easily predict that how the story would eventually end, the movie delivers its finale with its quiet dramatic power as Barbara makes a crucial choice for her and others in the end, and the last scene feels cautiously hopeful despite the uncertainties lingering on the screen.
The movie reminds me of another wonderful German movie “The Lives of the Others”(2006), which was one of the best movies I saw in 2007. Both movies realistically show us one gloomy world existing in the past, and they reminded me of a far gloomier world existing right above my country. I do not know when the deranged dictatorship in North Korea will meet its end, but, as a South Korean movie lover, I sort of wish that there will be the time when the movies about North Korea society are made – and I hope they will be as good and honest as “Barbara”.