Monday Movie: Barbara, by David Bax
When a movie is named after its protagonist, there’s usually a good chance it will be described as a “character study.” Christian Petzold’s Barbara, from 2012, is just that, mapping the psychology of a woman steadfastly refusing to become invested in anything because she views her current situation as temporary, even when she doesn’t know how she’ll ever get out of it. But that’s nowhere near a summation of all that the film contains. In addition to being a character piece, it’s a suspense movie, a political thriller and a few more subgenres to boot. It’s all these things at once and with flawless harmony.
Nina Hoss plays Barbara, an East German doctor in the 1980s who made the mistake of applying for an exit visa. As punishment, she has been relocated to a small, country hospital. While there, she continues to seek extralegal ways out of the country while doing her job and developing an uneasy friendship with another doctor, André (Ronal Zehrfeld), all the while remaining under the careful watch of the Stasi. Despite her focus on escape, she can’t help but be a very good doctor any more than she can help caring for the warm and kind-hearted André.
When Barbara does land on a possible plan for fleeing, the thriller machinery kicks on with a satisfying whir. Thanks to Petzold – who possesses a natural feel for character moments both as a director and screenwriter – and to Hoss’s assured embodiment of a woman who is a self-reliant as she is unsure of her footing, we’ve come to care immensely about our heroine. That sort of investment pays off like a jackpot when the stakes rise. Barbara’s plans may be pocked with pitfalls but Barbara contains nary a misstep.