As the calendar year comes to a close, a key film from the 2012 festival circuit receives commercial release in the U.S., a tense historical inquiry from one of Germany's most important contemporary filmmakers. Sadly and surprisingly, Barbara did not make the short list for Oscar consideration; it's a rare year in which there were simply too many strong foreign language movies to make the cut.
But Barbara is likely to connect with American audiences even without the Academy's attention. Anchored by an award-worthy lead performance by Nina Hoss, this character study depicts life under circumstances most of us could never even imagine, showing how impossible choices become normalized under those awful constraints.
Barbara is the latest effort by director Christian Petzold, who is not yet an arthouse brand name in North America or even in Europe (as compared to, say, Pedro Almodóvar, Michael Haneke or Lars von Trier), but is easily Germany's highest-profile contemporary auteur. He is a poet of anomie, an artist of penetrating sociological insight whose ongoing topic of exploration has been the crisis of reunification. Whereas Petzold's recent films Yella and especially Jerichow examined the lingering impact of the German Democratic Republic upon post-communism's displaced nomads, Barbara is a period piece, situating his benighted characters within the terror and malaise of the East German 1980s.
Dr. Barbara Wolff (Hoss) has been sent from Berlin to the countryside for unspecified transgressions against the state. At her new post, she reports to Dr. Reiner (Ronald Zehrfeld), a young, talented doctor who, we learn, informs to the Stasi to keep his own mistakes from catching up with him. Barbara and her West Berliner lover (Mark Waschke) plan to sneak her into the West, but things get complicated. She was intent on merely marking time and passing through, but between having her apartment tossed and periodic body-cavity searches, she becomes personally invested in the young patients who, like her, are victims of the GDR's Stalinist tyranny.
Barbara finds the normally austere Petzold shifting toward a more conventional, humanistically inclined art cinema. His work certainly doesn't suffer for this broadened accessibility. Petzold invests Barbara with a warmer, more classicist look than usual; he has quite deliberately sanded down the more jagged edges of his directorial style. Nevertheless, Barbara retains the filmmaker's clear-eyed materialism — not a surprise, since the film is another of Petzold's frequent collaborations with leftist documentarian Harun Farocki. Power and violence saturate everyday life to such extent that they become a leaden weight in the body's cells, an added gravity that ever so slightly impedes basic movement. Life under communism isn't a glamorously horrific experience but a dull, throbbing banality — a slow grinding death. Compare this to the sensationalism of 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, or the bromides of The Lives of Others, and Petzold's contribution shines all the more brightly.