A blond woman sits alone on a bench in an empty courtyard, silently smoking a cigarette in “Barbara.” Her face is unreadable.
Later, this same woman stands against a wall in her apartment, watching without words, without expression, as a secret policeman ransacks the room.
She is wary. She is guarded. She is a fortress of one.
The woman, Barbara (Nina Hoss), is a physician in East Germany in 1980, before the fall of the Wall. She made the mistake of requesting permission to leave the country to travel to the West, and as punishment the communist government banished her from her home city of Berlin to the out-of-the-way province where this German-language drama takes place.
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She’s a marked woman now. Her every move is monitored by the regime’s internal security apparatus, the Stasi, which posts agents outside her home who come through the door whenever they please to harass and intimidate her.
Under siege, she keeps her cool. She keeps her composure. She keeps secrets.
The picture, written and directed by Christian Petzold, reveals those secrets — secret hopes for a better life, of escape — slowly, deliberately. Revealed as well — slowly, deliberately — is her embattled humanity. That peeks through in her interactions with her patients, especially with an ill girl named Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer). Reading “Huckleberry Finn” to the kid, Barbara smiles. It’s a startling thing to see because the contrast with her regular expression is so stark.
Hoss’ acting is a marvel of subtlety; her body language is precisely calibrated to reveal a great deal about the character’s inner feelings by the slightest changes of posture and facial expression.
Another doctor (Ronald Zehrfeld), a colleague at the clinic where Barbara works, is curious about and sympathetic to this blond enigma. He seems like a nice fellow, but she suspects he might be an informer.
This picture is full of stillnesses in which the main character hides her thoughts and feelings. The intrusions on those stillnesses — the sound of a car engine, a knock on the door — keep Barbara wary and vigilant. Her battle to hang onto her humanity by using stillness as a weapon fascinates.
Soren Andersen: firstname.lastname@example.org