East Germany, summer 1980. Barbara Wulff (Nina Hoss) is a doctor who has been transferred from East Berlin to a hospital in the provincial north — a geographical and professional boondocks. Akin to house arrest, Barbara’s new gig is punishment for having applied to emigrate to the West, a grave offense in the eyes of the Communist authorities.
The unnamed country town where she finds herself marooned is quiet and picturesque. But Barbara’s life here soon proves to be no idyll. There are unannounced nighttime visits from the secret police, i.e., the Stasi, led by the hatchet-faced Schütz (Rainer Bock) and his men, who ransack Barbara’s modest apartment in search of politically compromising material. Schütz has an even more vulture-like female assistant, who grimly straps on latex gloves before subjecting Barbara to body searches.
Beyond that there is the atmosphere of suspicion that follows Barbara everywhere. This country setting should be inviting, a place to let one’s guard down — the summer weather could not be more glorious — but the ambiguous stares from Barbara’s landlady and even strangers on the train make clear that this is no place to get comfortable. Barbara could be under state surveillance anywhere she goes, no matter how remote or sleepy the locale. Here there is no distinction between public and private, inside and outside. The police state has drawn an invisible web all around her. A muted sinister quality is the keynote of her daily life.
Her escape is to retreat into herself. The state may subject her to humiliating, invasive searches, but Barbara’s steely poise declares that they haven’t broken her. (Here as in her other collaborations with director Christian Petzold, Hoss’s performance is a lesson in how movie actors draw viewers in by withholding, by not asking for the audience’s affection.)
Barbara faces a subtler and more confounding test in the form of André (Ronald Zehrfeld), her supervisor at the hospital. An amiable teddy bear of a man, André tries to gently break down her defenses with a low-key courtliness. You could say he does everything right, yet Barbara has to consider whether this is just one more potential trap — whether André is trying to keep tabs on her for reports to the Stasi.
The ambiguity to many of their exchanges captures the disorienting nature of life under the Stasi: whether André might not be an informant who also genuinely cares about Barbara — the two are by no means mutually exclusive. (After 1989, many Stasi informants defended reporting on their loved ones by saying it was a way of protecting them.)
André doesn’t know it, but Barbara has a lover, one Jörg (Mark Waschke), a successful businessman from the West. Jörg is able to make trips across the border during which he and Barbara steal a few minutes together. They have a liaison at an Interhotel, one of the hotels in East Germany set up for Westerners to stay in (as if to prevent any kind of ideological contamination were they to stay among the general populace). Jörg’s hotel room feels like a zone apart, a privileged space where Barbara can finally relax and even smile.
But writer-director Petzold makes the scene in the Interhotel an incisive sketch of opportunism and mutual misunderstanding between East and West. Jörg reveals an unconscious condescension when he tells Barbara of his plan to smuggle her across the border to West Germany. You won’t have to work any more, he tells her; “I earn enough,” as if that settles everything. Unlike André, Jörg has misread how important being a doctor is to Barbara’s identity.
Compared to the other interiors we see in the East, the furnishings in the Interhotel are notably more up to date, almost lavish. Throughout the movie, Petzold depicts a country saddled with aged or broken-down technology, from a police wagon that won’t start to the make-do equipment at the hospital. At a sleepy local train station Barbara passes a placard proclaiming, “WITH OPTIMISM WE BUILD THE FUTURE,” but in truth time appears to have stood still here, for a few years at least. (The ossification would continue throughout the ‘80s; no perestroika was coming to the GDR under Erich Honecker. It would be nine more years of stasis and disillusionment before the borders suddenly fell.)
Almost but not quite a thriller, Barbara becomes increasingly tense as the date of Barbara’s planned escape draws near. A series of medical crises at the hospital demand her increased involvement; meanwhile the Stasi keeps nosing around, certain that something is going on. And there is the enigma of André. Can a man this unfailingly decent really be informing for the Stasi?
As Barbara builds to a dramatic, albeit predictable climax (my sole gripe about the movie; I was able to guess the ending about two-thirds of the way in), almost nothing in the cutting signals “suspense” in the way that Hollywood movies have accustomed audiences to expect. Petzold refuses to pump up tension or excitement by bombarding the viewer with rapid-fire edits. An even more daring choice on the director’s part is that when Barbara makes a life-altering choice, via a noble sacrifice, the movie doesn’t milk the moment for drama or even dwell on it. Barbara’s face just hardens slightly — and she gets on with what she has to do.
True to Petzold’s intentions (the director’s parents emigrated from East to West Germany shortly before he was born), Barbara is neither a polemic nor an Orwellian nightmare, but a nuanced depiction of East Germany. But even so, I wonder, in another 20 or 30 years, will popular culture remember anything about life in East Germany besides the Stasi? It’s as if the lens of hindsight has taken what was once veiled, never spoken of in public, and made it the defining, overarching trait of that society.
Barbara expands nationwide in the U.S. throughout February and March. Click here for a list of theatres. You can watch the trailer here: