Braving surveillance, repression and dreams of escape, Christian Petzold’s Barbara looks at life behind the Iron Curtain in this genre-busting romantic thriller.
East Of Eden by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Just as his 2007 breakthrough film Yella offered, among other things, an aspirational take on East-West relations, Christian Petzold’s Barbara, with its heroine seething with desperation to leave the GDR, puts the high-stake emotions and economics of border crossing first. While Petzold may have been born far from the socialist state in North Rhine-Westphalia, his films still dwell in this penumbra of hinterland frontiers and displaced personalities. And indeed, it’s a convincing portrait of the GDR, without the drab run-down buildings, the iconic retro pleasures or the ‘ostalgie’ of Goodbye, Lenin! but an apt depiction all the same of the claustrophobia of small town life in East Germany with its seemingly ubiquitous Stasi informants and its ever twitching curtains.
It’s hard to fathom why a young doctor from the big smoke would transfer to the sleepy backwaters of Rostock. She’s a Berliner – and what a Berliner – with all the stand-offish rudeness of the capital citizen. And it’s testament to Nina Hoss that she manages to carry off this inimitable Prussian misanthropy with such unalienating aplomb. The doctor from the Charité refuses to mingle with her colleagues, choosing instead a single table at lunchtime, refusing a tuner for her neglected piano (this is not a time for music), or a lift from dishy Dr Wolff in his car, (and no, it’s not a Trabant). It’s a deliberate distance, designed to keep prying eyes and public opinion at bay. For Barbara has a secret.
With her nylon tights and silky cigarettes from the West, all is not what it seems with the sulky doctor. Her apartment is under constant surveillance, frequently rummaged in search of state-damaging secrets. Even the furtive secrets the cinematic audience is privy to give little away – Barbara’s penchant for late-night cycle rides along the coast or for storing money in a rocky hiding place keep the questions coming. Seemingly unfathomable, Barbara’s motives only come slowly into focus, stealing away to meet her husband on a visit from the west, only able to spend the night together in his luxury hotel by climbing in through the window.
Already relocated to the sleepy backwater on the Baltic coast following an application to leave East Germany and a subsequent prison sentence, now Barbara’s silently connived plans to defect to the West are scuppered on two fronts. The first, Dr André Wolff – embodied by Ronald Zehrfeld with all the grave respect of his GDR namesakes Konrad and Christa – is a die-hard humanitarian, going beyond the meagre limitations of GDR hospitals and lack of anaesthetic to provide unrivalled care to his suffering patients. Their attraction is immediately sketched out, parrying the unusually verbose latinate forms of German verbs such as präparieren and separieren. His mini laboratory and his ceaseless struggle to acquire the latest hand-me-downs from the West mark him out as a worthy love interest for the stony-faced but ever Hippocratic Barbara, but with an inescapable tie and a secret cause that just can’t be sacrificed to a West end girl.
Barbara’s future is not only endangered by a burgeoning relationship with the doctor, so much more worthy than her fly-by-night husband (who suavely puts her in her place with a macho, “You won’t have to work in the West”), but also by borstal truant Stella. Her meningitis and abuse at the infamous Torgau institute bring her to Barbara’s attention in a solidarity born of incarceration of shared dreams of freedom and escape. Barbara’s maternal instincts evoked, she reads to her and watches over her at night. It’s perhaps a necessary plot pivot that Stella should be so mistreated at the hands of the GDR authorities, reserved the dismal, backbreaking work of clearing ditches. And it’s an abuse that provides a neat if overwrought parallel to the detainment camps and dehumanisations of an earlier Germany. But Petzold’s escape psychology is unnecessarily conservative, for both Barbara’s crime and Stella’s mistreatment count as some of the most extreme examples of GDR repression tucked into what is made to seem like an everyday tale of everyday state violence. When in fact, the GDR’s treatment of its non-conformists was much more subtle and sinister.
But beyond politics, Barbara is a fascinating escape film. And while the final-reel flight into the Baltic by moonlight may not come as much of a surprise, Petzold conjures a delicious maelstrom of conflicting emotions – we will Barbara to stay and bring a romantic conclusion to the love story as much as we want the escape to come to a successful and thrilling conclusion. Barbara‘s deliberate pacing and moments of emotional bravura, such as the loudly ticking clock or Barbara’s violent thump of the piano as her flat is ransacked, offer a psychological release in a story where emotions are battened down behind closed curtains. Examining Germany’s fractured past and offering all the plastic pleasures of a period drama, Barbara may not have a lot to say about Germany in the here and now, but it’s a captivating peek behind the curtain.
Barbara is released on 28th September 2012 in the UK