is based on trust, so is it ever really possible in police state like the Soviet-era
East Germany? Obviously, that is not the
Stasi’s problem. They are out to do
everything possible to isolate and demoralize a dissident doctor. Yet, in spite of her better judgment, she
will develop ambiguously complicated feelings for her minder in Christian
Petzold’s Barbara (trailer here), Germany’s
official best foreign language Academy Award submission, which opens this
Friday in New York.
soon as Dr. Barbara Wolff applied for an exit visa, her brilliant career was
effectively over. Transferred from a
prestigious East Berlin hospital to a provincial backwater, Dr. Wolff is all
too aware of the eyes on her. The most
obvious set belongs to Andre, Barbara’s ostensive supervisor, whose role as the
designated Stasi snitch is an open secret.
He has a surprisingly convincing good guy act though and he genuinely
seems to care about their patients, particularly Mario, a young man suffering
from a mysterious head trauma that defies diagnosis. Yet, the case that resonates deepest with Dr.
Wolff is that of Stella, a recaptured prison camp escapee suffering from
is not inclined to meekly submit to the Stasi’s mounting harassment. Having hatched an escape plan with her West
German lover, she believes her time in East Germany is limited, which is why
she is so surprised by her growing attraction to Andre and her emotional
investment in their patients.
Barbara has been
described as Petzold’s response to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s brilliant
The Lives of Others. That is true to an extent, but not in a
polemical sense. There is no nostalgia
here for the Honecker regime, let alone a defense. Petzold’s parents made the flight to freedom
Dr. Wolff is anticipating, so he is understandably sensitive to the everyday
tribulations endured by East Germans.
Indeed, the film is best at conveying the guarded nature required for
even the most prosaic of conversations and the jarring sound of that dreaded
knock in the night.
Wolff easily represents Nina Hoss’s best performance to reach our shores. Outwardly diffident but profoundly uneasy
beneath her facade, the good doctor might be the best woman’s lead role of the
year (and most years prior). It is a
tricky proposition to convey her character’s roiling inner turmoil as well as
her concerted efforts masking it from the world, but Hoss pulls it off
remarkably. It demands a full scale
Oscar campaign. Former East German
Ronald Zehrfield also helps complicate audiences’ emotional responses as the
flawed but perhaps still idealistic Andre, who might also be a victim himself,
in that manner unique to captive citizens of police states.
Exercising a masterful control of mood and
ambient sound, Petzold vividly recreates a sense of life in the GDR, in all its
oppressive austerity. It is a lean,
tense narrative, yet Petzold derives much of the suspense from within his
characters rather than through external cloak-and-daggering. A very accomplished film featuring
Oscar-worthy work from Hoss, Barbara is
very highly recommended when it opens this Friday (12/21) in New York downtown at
the Angelika Film Center and uptown at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
Labels: 85th Academy Awards Foreign Language Submissions, Christian Petzold, Communism, East Germany, Nina Hoss