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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It looks as if the communist rule in former East Germany is a nice
source of inspiration for German film makers. First, there was the
light-hearted comedy Goodbye, Lenin. Then, the heart wrenching drama
Das Leben der Anderen. And now, there's Barbara. Another drama about a
human being whose life is ruined by the regime.
The film is mainly about trust. Or, about not being able to trust anyone in a police state like East Germany. Barbara is a doctor who is banned from Berlin and put to work in a hospital in a provincial town in the north of the country. Soon enough, we find out why: she has a lover in West Germany and wants to escape from the country. She is bitter and full of resentment, but cares a lot about her patients, especially about a young girl who lives in a nearby labour camp and turns out to be pregnant.
Several times, we learn how oppressive this country was. 'No one can be happy here', says Barbara when her lover proposes to come and live with her in the East. 'I want my baby to go away', says the pregnant girl, and she doesn't mean abortion. 'Do you think they will let me go if I marry him?', asks a girl who also has a Western lover. 'No', is Barbara's short and clear answer.
The film is very strong in atmosphere, but there is also suspense. There are even some Hitchcock-like moments. One is a scene where Barbara tries to locate a colleague, and finds him in the house of the Stasi-officer who has searched her apartment. It makes you wonder if the doctor, too, is a Stasi-informant. One of the other strong points is the acting. Nina Hoss is very convincing as the bitter, distrustful Barbara, who only really can relax in the company of her Western lover. And there is the cinematography, that adds to the almost claustrophobic atmosphere. The camera hardly moves, the shots are static and show exactly what needs to be showed.
The end is quite surprising, and adds a nice and meaningful twist to a beautiful movie.
It's a challenging task to depict a bygone era which hasn't yet passed
into history, but is a living memory in the minds of many. Distant
events may be easily interpreted at will, because no spectator can
expect a minute reconstruction of a reality past. Adaptations of recent
events, however, fall under close scrutiny of those who were actually
there, and any attempt to 'tell the whole story' will invariably meet
with criticism from those who feel left out of the picture, or who
remember differently. It is therefore the best solution for the film
maker to focus on atmosphere rather than events, and a simple story
rather than a complex rendition of society as a whole. And that's what
director/ screenwriter Christian Petzold does: he tells the story of a
doctor, displaced from the capital to the province for an application
to leave the country, and confronting an atmosphere of distrust while
preparing her escape to the West. This routine of hostility is a little
ameliorated by the interest of a male colleague, who may however be an
assigned informer, and the friendship to a pregnant patient, who
apparently escaped from a juvenile offenders camp only to be
What makes me consider this film as far superior to the much lauded, Oscar-winning 'The Lives of Others' is that it does not sacrifice atmosphere to film making conventions. For instance, there is no music, because there was no music. 'The Lives of Others' tormented any actual witness of the times it described with a sappy soundtrack. It also did not correspond to my recollections of East Germany because it limited the supervision of ordinary citizens to the Stasi ('State Security') and its collaborators. It did point out that this supervision was omnipresent, but it created a division between good and evil which was slowly eroded from the evil side's end. 'Barbara', however, focuses on the way ordinary citizens, not intellectuals, were treated, and the fact that virtually everyone collaborated in the supervision of the individual, whether they were working with the Stasi or not. Barbara is fully aware of her situation, and tries to make friends with her colleague/informer André Reiser to win him over to her side, while at the same time not giving anything away about herself. Reiser, on the other hand, tries to gain her trust as a person, because he needs her competence at work and may be romantically interested in her, while at the same time fulfilling his obligations to report on her.
This constant game of hide and seek illustrates what Socialism was really like - a permanent grey zone in which you had to measure your steps carefully and no clear distinctions between good and evil existed, as 'The Lives of Others' would have you believe; and the young patient side characters show that quite a few cracked under this immense pressure. By focusing on one woman's story, director Petzold delivers an accurate portrait of the realities of life at that time: it did not matter whether you were good at your job or not, and being too good made you automatically suspicious, while being lazy made you the target of accusations of boycotting society; it was dangerous to open up to colleagues, because they would almost certainly be inquired about what you said, but at the same time it was dangerous to distance yourself, because then you'd be suspected of having something to hide. Everything was tactics, nothing was spontaneous, everybody wanted to get out, but chastised those who actually tried. This authenticity has probably prompted this film's selection as the German candidate for the foreign language Oscar 2013, but it may also have hampered its chances to win the Golden Bear upon its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, where Petzold won the director's prize though. Realism makes for an accurate portrayal of the recent past, but for those who have not been there, 'Barbara' may be a bit too stiff and gloomy, because it does not compromise its authenticity to the expectations of (Western) audiences.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The clever doctor Barbara Wolf is by the authorities placed out in the
provincial parts of the Eastern German Republic, die DDR. We're in
1980, nine years before the fall of the Berlin wall and the Iron
curtain. She has a lover from the free West Germany, and wants to move
to the West, which is out if question for the paranoid communist
government, which became famous for the surveillance techniques and
spying systems. It's later revealed that 1/7th of the population was
forced to spy on others, even family members, to prevent opposition, as
well as getting too much contact with Western ideas and ideologies.
In the province she meets another clever doctor placed in the province after a mishap pending at a Berlin hospital. Or is this just a cover up story of a spying agent? Barbara can't tell. She knows there are possible spies all over. She rightfully trusts no one. For her it's an impossible idea for her lover to move over to Eastern Germany, as opposed to her getting to the West.
For those living today it's almost impossible to comprehend how it was like to live in DDR (Eastern Germany) during the communist years. It was a society impossible to imagine, only possibly equaled today by North Korea. The state intelligence police, Stasi, was almost everywhere, planting spies and surveillance equipment.
This film doesn't explain the system. You're just put right into it. This might make it hard to understand without having the knowledge of how extreme this society was, almost like George Orwell's great and scary novel "1984" in real life. Barbara is under constant surveillance when she's not far away from people. She's so suspected to do illegal things, that she frequently body and anally strip searched when the Stasi visits her.
I visited Eastern Germany 1988, before the wall came down. The visit marked me for life, both as a Westerner and a Norwegian being able to visit ad a tourist, where they equaled the value of Western currency marks to the Eastern marks, though only valued 1/20th. Still they thought they could keep the longing for the Western freedom from being planted into the DDR-inhabitants. I visited the concentration camp Sachsenhausen, and I experienced the railways where there was no smile to see, the feel of total depression and bleak or hardly any colored lights, as an opposite to the sparkling neon lights of the West, and the total surveillance of the center of Berlin. No western lyrics and western music was allowed, hardly any Western cars. If it could have any kind of opposition interpreted into it, or dreams of the Western freedom, it was disallowed. If you tried to flee to the West, you would be instantly shot! I was terrified for four hours in my last trip back to Western Berlin was halted for four hours when they took my passport and ran away with it.
Today it seems we're not afraid of being under constant surveillance. This is just another reminder of how terrible it s not to have a free will, and not have the right to your own life. It's so inhumane and humiliating. But we're in our way right into the same kind of society.
It's a very god film, but the understated telling and explaining is really too difficult to understand for most today. When Barbara is giving away her opportunity to flee, she's giving up her dreams of freedom. I think most without having the background to understand this, will understand the film. For most it will seem slow and leave too many questions. So read yourself up on what the DDR-politics where before you see this.
And remember that freedom is something we can't give away! Ever!
Looking back at 1980 East Germany director Christian Petzold conjures
up a dreary Orwellian world of suppressed emotions, police state
invasiveness and a simmering yearning for something better. The work of
Cinematographer Hans Fromm creates an atmosphere of almost perpetual
colorless twilight and Petzold's laconic scenes and long takes create a
subtle but omnipresent feeling of oppression and paranoia.
In a beautifully understated performance Nina Hoss (Barbara) is a doctor whose desire to leave East Germany results in her being punished through relocation to a rural village clinic where she encounters clinic chief Ronald Zehrfeld (Dr. Reiser). Reiser appears to be sympathetic but she is reluctant to trust him. Jasna Fritzi Bauer is Stella a young girl who constantly escapes juvenile work camps seeking refuge at the clinic. Mark Waschke is Jorg a well-to-do foreigner who loves Barbara and offers to help her escape to Denmark where they can be together. Rainer Bock is a Stasi officer who periodically subjects Barbara to strip searches in an attempt to harass and prevent her from fleeing.
"Barbara" is a quiet character piece. It's a subtle, tense, humanistic drama not ideally suited for audiences of plot-driven pictures. Nina Hoss deserves serious consideration from the Academy as hers is one of the best performances by an actress this year.
German screenwriter and director Christian Petzold's sixth feature film
which he co-wrote with Czech-born German screenwriter, producer and
director Harun Farocki, premiered In competition at the 62nd Berlin
International Film Festival in 2012, was screened in the Contemporary
World Cinema section at the 37th Toronto International Film Festival in
2012, in the Horizons section at the 47th Karlovy Vary International
Film Festival in 2007, was shot on location in Kirchmöser, in the town
of Brandenburg an der Havel in Brandenburg, Germany and is a German
production which was produced by German producer Florian Koerner von
Gustorf. It tells the story about a female doctor in East Germany named
Barbara who as a consequence of having signed a petition saying that
she wishes to leave the German Democratic Republic, is sent to a small
town near the capital city of Germany where she is to live and work at
a paediatric surgery department. There she is introduced to her new
boss named André who is assigned to supervise her.
Distinctly and precisely directed by German filmmaker Christian Petzold, this fictional, suspenseful and somewhat historic period drama which is narrated mostly from the protagonist's point of view, draws a carefully structured and concentrated portrayal of a woman whom whilst awaiting her opportunity to flee to West Germany to be with her lover and despite her predetermined attitude towards her new place of residence, begins to appreciate and care for her patients and her colleagues. While notable for its colorful and naturalistic milieu depictions, sterling cinematography by German cinematographer Hans Fromm, production design by production designer Kade Gruber, fine costume design by UK-born German costume designer Anette Guther, film editing by film editor Bettina Böhler and use of sound, colors and light, this character-driven and narrative-driven story about some of the many people who wanted to emigrate from communist DDR, depicts a dense study of character and contains a good score by composer Stefan Will.
This quiet, nuanced, rhythmic and fragmented chamber-piece which is set against the backdrop of the socialist state of East Germany during a bright summer in the 1980s, which has been chosen as Germany's official submission to the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 85th Academy Awards in 2013 and where a male doctor immediately takes a liking to a woman he doesn't know has a lover in West Germany and is planning to escape, is impelled and reinforced by its cogent narrative structure, subtle character development and continuity, underlying romantic tension, harmonic and foreboding atmosphere and the efficiently understated acting performances by German actress Nina Hoss in her fourth collaboration with Christian Petzold and German actor Ronald Zehrfeld who had a minor though noticeable role in German screenwriter and director Christian Schwochow's "Die Unsichtbare" (2011). A genuinely humane love-story and a rarely graceful mystery which gained, among other awards, the Silver Bear for Best Director Christian Petzold at the 62nd Berlin Film Festival in 2012.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Set in Communist East Germany in the early 1980s, cold war paranoia is
in full view in Christian Petzold's Barbara, winner of the Silver
Berlin Bear for Best Director at the Berlinale. In Barbara, Petzold has
fashioned not only a superb character study but a film that illuminates
the effects of oppression on the human psyche, an oppression that ended
in Germany only with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the
reunification of East and West many years later. The film shows the
East German security apparatus' (Stasi) use of intimidation and
disorientation as tools in operating a system of control and
surveillance directed at those suspected of opposing the GDR.
Portrayed by Nina Hoss in a performance of remarkable nuance and authenticity, Barbara, an East Berlin doctor, has been exiled to a small clinic in the provinces after applying for an exit visa to visit her boyfriend in the West. She is a tall, stately, and attractive woman, yet taciturn and distant, her face filled with an indescribable sadness. Trying to serve her patients as best she can, she knows that she is under surveillance by the Stasi, particularly by Officer Klaus Schutz (Rainer Bock), who does not hesitate to conduct unannounced searches of Barbara's apartment, even her person, and whose presence in her life is all too visible.
Not knowing whom to trust, thinking (perhaps rightly so) that her friends and colleagues may be police informants, Barbara's aloofness leads her colleagues to give her the nickname of "Berlin" to describe what they think is her big-city attitude. On the job, however, she does not allow her fears to get in the way of her professional responsibilities and her relationship with her patients shows her hidden warmth. Dr. André Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld), a soft-looking, slightly heavy-set doctor, solicits her friendship and offers repeatedly to drive her home but she keeps him at arms length, suspicious of his possible connections.
In spite of this tense atmosphere, Barbara manages to befriend Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), a young patient who escaped from a work camp at Torgau. Correctly diagnosing her with Meningitis, a diagnosis that the other doctors had overlooked, she reads The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to her in the evening, a story of two people on the run. More tension is added when we see Barbara's surreptitious exchange of black market cigarettes and packets of money with people unknown. In a rapturous meeting with her West German lover Jorg (Mark Waschke) in a secluded forest area, she is given the choice of leaving the country with him, reassured that, because of his circumstances, she would no longer have to work.
Barbara and her friend make plans, but her growing relationship with André and ties to young Stella become complicating factors. André's own story of how he ended up in the village only adds to her confusion and uncertainty. Barbara is an understated gem that never hits us over the head with its message but leaves no doubt about its implications. While the film depicts the circumstances in a particular country, it transcends its limitations to become a universal experience. A compelling and riveting film, it begins in resignation and ends in transformation.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Barbara has a lover who comes from west Germany. She is herself from
the east. The year is 1980. The only thing she wants is to go to the
west, joining her lover, and be free. "You will not have to work, I
have enough income for both of us" says her lover.
Stasi soon finds out about her intention and exiles her to a small town by the sea. It is not Berlin where she comes from. It is not a prestigious hospital where she used to work, but a local, small one. "Nobody can be happy here", she claims. Can't she?
She keeps distance at her new work. After all, it was just a stop over before she joins her lover in the West. But there are patients that she really cares for. There is work that she loves doing. And there is this open-hearted, sympathetic doctor that seems to have affection for her.
This is a love story, told subtly. Looks and expression say more than a thousands words; this is the strength of this movie, compared to other so many girl meets boy stories. Love changes Barbara. It makes her sacrifice what seems to be her most dearest: freedom. It changes her beliefs: perhaps she can be happy after all, as long as she does what she loves the most and be with someone that cares for her.
The story is set in East Germany in 1980, when it looked like Communism
would last forever. Central character is Dr. Barbara Wolff, played by
the classically beautiful blonde Nina Hoss, who I've previously seen in
A Woman In Berlin. Dr. Wolff was a fast track young doctor at the
Charite, the big teaching hospital in Berlin, before she fell in love
with a West German businessman and applied for an exit visa. That got
her a short spell in prison for ingratitude to the workers and farmers
who paid for her medical education, together with a transfer to a one
horse town in Mecklenburg, where she seems to be the second doctor in a
two doctor pediatric clinic. We know all this because, as she is
getting off the bus, the local Stasi man is going through her file with
Andre, the head doctor at the clinic. Andre is what they used to call
an Inoffiziale Mitarbeiter, or unofficial cooperator. We find out why
later on. He's also an attractive, shambling 30 something bachelor in a
kind of teddy bear way, a skilled, dedicated doctor with a good bedside
manner, and, notwithstanding his work as an informer, a pretty decent
guy by the standards of the time and place.
Barbara twigs immediately that Andre's an informer when he offers her a lift home from work on the first day. As they drive through an intersection in his piece of crap Trabant, she says, "you were supposed to ask me which way to turn, but then, you already know where I live." She is resentful, understandably so, and standoffish, which the clinic staff put down to stuck up Berlin attitude. That may have something to do with the open surveillance by the Stasi guy and regular searches of her apartment, complete with strip searches by a female agent. But Barbara is also a first class doctor who takes a real interest in her patients. Andre is quietly smitten -- if you've seen Hoss you'll know why -- and keeps chipping away at her resistance. Despite knowing who else he works for, she can't help responding.
What neither Andre nor the Stasi agent know is that Barbara is contriving to meet her Wessi boyfriend when he's in the East on business, and they're scheming to smuggle her out. He's crazy about her, even saying that he'd move East if she wants, but there are slight intimations that life in the West with him might not be exactly as she's dreamed of. In any event, there's a lot of sneaking about, and Hoss has a good line in tense body language and over the shoulder glances. Everybody knows everybody's business in a small town anyway, and in a small town in Mecklenburg, your landlady, your co-workers, or anyone you pass on the street could be an informer.
Complications ensue, involving Andre, the escape plan, and Barbara's obligations to two young patients in whom she has taken a special interest. I won't tell you how they play out, except that nothing goes quite as expected. The movie gives you a very good sense of a society in which everyone is compromised in some way, trust and intimacy are not really possible, but life has to go on nevertheless. It's not as showy as The Lives of Others, but it gives a better sense of what everyday life was like in the German Democratic Republic, where it has been estimated that there was one Stasi employee for every 165 citizens and one informer for every 6.5.
BARBARA may be a little too slow and humorless for many tastes, but it's one of those films that's so real it hardly seems like a film at all. You have to admire the stark realism here. Whether you want to go there or not, this film truly takes you to a secluded province of East Germany, 1980. BARBARA affords an acute look at the inside of a totalitarian state. While it doesn't show a whole lot in this regard, what it does is shown most effectively. The lack of any soundtrack--something I didn't even notice while viewing but that one of the reviews on Amazon pointed out--only adds to BARBARA's immediacy. Quietly immersing, with a real surprise at the end. Excellent cinematography and fine acting by all.
A somber, tightly scripted, almost old-fashioned film. I can picture this in black white, or a movie not only set in 1980 but shot then, too. I mean this all as a compliment.
It's key to know that this is Communist East Germany, a closed country under Soviet influence and generally struggling to keep up with West Germany. The doldrums depicted, and the lower quality of medical care at this small provincial clinic, are very real.
The title character is a downtrodden doctor who was caught trying to escape to the West, and was sent to the boondocks as punishment. And she is periodically searched by the authorities, who go through her apartment, her body cavities, her entire personal life while she passively waits. It's awful. And very real.
There is a steady vague story line showing Barbara's contacts to sympathetic Germans, and it seems one or two of them are visiting now and then from the West. Clandestine meetings with money (and sex) continue in the woods, but these are minor points in her steady work as a doctor in the clinic.
More important, it turns out, is the cute and steady-handed male doctor who runs the clinic. She doesn't trust him. If he asks questions out of curiosity she isn't sure if he's a spy or just a nice guy. We aren't sure either. His life is simple and has simple pleasures, and he likes her and tries to make her open up and actually smile, which turns out to be the hardest thing in the whole movie.
Barbara's plans to escape seem to be threatened by her job commitment, which she can't shirk because it'll draw attention to her irregularities. And so things go in this windy, North German countryside. It's so beautifully, patiently wrought, you have to watch and wait, just as passively as Barbara. It's sad, for sure, and yet there are these small glimmers. For one thing, there is the idea that no matter what your circumstances there is always the ability to be good and to do good. The male doctor is the example of this, and Barbara begins to see something more genuine at work than her own superficial (we assume) strivings for a consumerist West.
It's odd to see such a balanced and yet truthful view of Communist Germany. The oppression is real and bad, but the strivings of regular people (doctors and others) make hope possible. I loved this movie, even though fairly little happens, and there are few turns of the plot that are clearly for dramatic impact more than an integral building of character. But these are small caveats. The total effect is simple and penetrating, with a beautiful ending.
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