Featuring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Rainer Bock, Jasna Fritzi Bauer, Mark Waschke
Director: Christian Petzold
Writer: Christian Petzold in collaboration with Harun Farocki
2012-13 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival season dates:
Somerville 28 January–3 February, 8pm; Joondalup Pines 5–10 February, 8pm
Reviewer: rolanstein (one-word verdict: absorbing)
German Democratic Republic, 1980, Berlin Wall still firmly intact. As punishment for applying for an exit visa, doctor Barbara (Nina Hoss) has been transferred from a prestigious position in East Berlin to a small hospital in a provincial coastal town. She is under regular surveillance by the Stasi, whom she suspects of recruiting her genial boss, chief physician André (Ronald Zehrfeld), to spy on her. Through stealth and careful collusion, she manages to carry on an affair with her wealthy West German lover, Jörg (Mark Waschke), who arranges for her to escape by sea to Denmark. Her plans are complicated by the growing attraction between her and André, and her sense of professional and humanitarian responsibility as a doctor in an under-resourced community hospital in dire need of her medical expertise and experience.
This brilliantly crafted work takes a while to get going, but is never less than absorbing. That’s some feat, considering the slow pacing, the bleakness of the setting and the unendearing lead character, Barbara.
She is perpetually sulky, unsmiling and resentful – as well she might be, given her forced relocation to a dismal apartment in the sticks and the invasive scrutiny of the Stasi who are always only a knock on the door away. Nevertheless, she’s enigmatic and contradictory, icily unresponsive to everyone she encounters except a pregnant teenage patient, Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), whom she treats with great tenderness and compassion.
Stella has contracted meningitis while interred at a brutal work camp for juvenile offenders. Like Barbara, she yearns to escape to the freedom of the West. During her recovery, Barbara sits at her bed, reading aloud from Huckleberry Finn – a meaningful choice of material for both women, given its themes of escape and idyllic adventurous freedom.
Barbara is up to something, but we know not what. There is no narrative spoon-feeding here. Rather, fragments of information emerge via seamless exposition in the natural course of Barbara’s strange new life; these fragments begin to make sense as the film progresses. It’s rather like a cinematic jigsaw puzzle.
For example, Barbara is delivered a wad of money by a ‘courier’ – a hospital staff member, or cleaner? – in the hospital toilets, which she subsequently hides in her apartment, then beneath rocks off the road along which she commutes to work on her bicycle. Neither the source nor purpose of the money is apparent for some time.
The Stasi seem to be aware of her complicity in something illegal. They frequently search her apartment and person (an intimidating, grim-faced woman subjects her to cavity searches), never finding whatever they’re looking for. It’s never made clear why Barbara is of such interest to them. And really, it doesn’t matter. In a paranoid State, all are perpetually under suspicion.
Her lover, Jörg, meets up with her for trysts in the forest, and in a ‘foreigners hotel’. But who is Jörg, that he can come and go with ease between West and East Germany, seemingly unscrutinised? Not everything is explained. Again, it doesn’t matter.
There is a scene that is repeated like a sinister refrain throughout the film: a bank of dark trees lean imposingly over Barbara as she cycles to and from work, a wild, hostile wind roaring through the branches at high decibels. It’s eerie, mysterious, furthering the sense of claustrophobia that hems Barbara in. It’s as if even the trees are watching her, alluding to some unspoken threat.
If I have given an impression of vagueness and surrealism, let me correct that. While the tree refrain is an instance of lyricism – and a startling one – this is a deftly handled realist piece through and through, the Kafkaesque horror of Barbara’s situation notwithstanding. Whether an accurate depiction of life in the totalitarian state of Cold War East Germany who can say? Not I. I spent but a day in drab and dreary East Berlin in 1983, and only know I was glad to get back on the other side of the Wall as evening fell. But it all feels pretty damned authentic, right down to the shabby train interiors, cheap boxy Russian-made cars, and detailed attendance to all manner of minutiae that serves to convincingly recreate the setting and era.
The only part of the film that compromises its realism is the ending, which features an all-too-fictively fortuitous re-appearance of a character – recalling Chekhov’s gun. However, dramatically the ending works wonderfully well, confronting Barbara with a choice she – and we – never dreamed existed. Her decision is moving and thought-provoking, and brings a masterful last-minute universality to the movie.
The superb direction is matched by the performances. Hoss is unflinching in the unrelenting focus on her; she is onscreen almost the entire movie. The cameras record her every move, much as the Stasi would aspire to. The understated complexity she brings to her character makes for compelling viewing indeed. Zehrfeld is entirely believable as a sensitive, intelligent, kindly physician forced to do the Stasi’s bidding, while somehow retaining his dignity and humanitarianism, giving not only a wink to his prey, but a possibility of transcendence through love.
While Barbara is a triumph of craft – which in itself makes it well worth seeing – and a most believable depiction of people struggling for oxygen in the suffocating air of totalitarianism, this is restrained and well-managed rather than impassioned filmmaking. So don’t expect a big emotional hit, the powerfully moving ending notwithstanding. Do expect to be haunted for days by the atmosphere and performances of this quintessentially Continental and most impressive film.
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