SFF: Barbara – Christian Petzold asks do I go or do I stay.

Barbara is a 2012 German film directed by Christian Petzold. The film competed in competition at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival in February 2012, where Petzold won the Silver Bear for Best Director. It heralds another partnership between Christian Petzold and Nina Hoss. Her close collaboration with the director has been extremely successful: she won the 2003 Adolf Grimme Award for her role in his filmSomething To Remind Me and two years later the Adolf Grimme Award in Gold for Wolfsburg. Her performance of Yella earned her the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2007 and the German Film Award in 2008.

Well – this was a rather interesting film. A kind-of-almost sympathetic look at life behind the iron curtain, all-be-it with the hindsight of living in the next century.

But that is misleading. This film does not have sympathies for 1980’s East Germany.  Rather, in a move that reminded me a lot of some of the films of the Czech New Wave, it depicted the solidarity that can arise being peoples oppressed by a totalitarian regime.  It also boldly suggests this solidarity can provide more to the individual than “freedom”.

East Germany in 1980: Physician Barbara (Nina Hoss) has been transferred for disciplinary reasons because she had filed an “ausreiseantrag”, which means she officially did express her wish to leave the German Democratic Republic. Since then he career in this state is done and she is no longer employed by the Charité in the capital Berlin but by a small hospital nearby the Baltic Sea. There she is specialised in pediatric surgery, a department led by chief physician André Reiser. The Stasi advises Reiser to approach her but she is in the habit of acting offish.

While Barbara’s lover Jörg in Western Germany prepares her escape, Reiser is increasingly impressed with Barbara. When an ill young runaway named Stella is delivered to the hospital, she openly opposes Reisers diagnosis and states the girl was suffering with meningitis. He stands corrected and appreciates how she takes care of Stella. She reads the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to her and learns that Stella has escaped from a youth detention centre for so-called juvenile offenders. Stella is pregnant and dreams about raising her child in Western Germany. Yet she must return to the detention centre.

Barbara can manage to meet Jörg secretly in an “Interhotel” (an Easter-German hotel designed for foreigners). He offers her to move to East Germany but she resents that. Then he indicates she ought to cease working once she is in West Germany because he was well-heeled. Consequently Barbara later faces a house search and even a strip search by the Stasi for having disappeared.

When Barbara already works on a concrete plan to get to Denmark, she still accepts Reiser’s invitation to dine with him, although she knows he must report to the Stasi. On that occasion she receives a gift from him. It is Ivan Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches“ and Reiser stresses that this book includes the tale of a doctor.

I won’t give you the rest of the plot because that will spoil the film.

Ultimately, Barbara will have to examine what freedom means to her.

I found this to be a compelling, dark and rather unsatisfying film. Positing the oppression of a communist regime and their treatment of her against a dominating lover who wants to prevent her from working and (basically) control her is a very nice idea and one I’m surprised I haven’t seen a lot more of in film. Then there is the rather fine line of the question of work. Work is a kind of freedom, and Barbra faces the removal of her work opportunities under both sides of the “Berlin Wall”. Work as a type of freedom – as a right – is a very Communist ideal and that was partially why I felt this had sympathies to aspects of communist theory. I’m left-wing enough to not be offended by that (on the contrary) but it was an interesting way of approaching rather delicate subject matter. No wonder he did so well at the Berlin International Film Festival.

One of the problems for me in this film was the treatment of the subject matter. These are strong and interesting themes, but I found the film so underplayed that it almost dragged and … I can’t belive I’m saying this… I was actually quite bored for some of it. There is almost no chemistry between Nina Hoss (who is so beautiful I think I want to cry every time I look at her) and Ronald Zehrfeld.  Usually that sort of problem doesn’t bother me, but I have to confess I just couldn’t see what this incredible intelligent woman saw in this sweet silly bear of a man.  Zehrfeld is very good-looking himself, but he is SO sweet that he’s insipid and I felt their connection was entirely watered down. Particularly posited against the passion she exhibits for her lover. I supposed this was a representation between a brash over-the-top sensory assault of The West versus a subtle, life affirming existence in The East, but it didn’t quite ring true.

Life in the beautiful little village is certainly filled with its own pleasures, but again we are talking about a woman who is regularly strip searched. You’d want the scenery to be pretty damn fine for that to whittle off into the distance as of no real importance. Barbra’s work is clearly her life and the hospital scenes are excellent, revealing a Doctor with the time and space to be able to nurture her patients properly. However hovering over her is the ever-present threat that she can be sent to a “work camp” which would see her digging ditches and living under concentration camp style conditions. This makes a “choice” to remain a doctor in a sleepy little town strange, given the only reason she is there is that she was forcibly removed from her own thriving career in Berlin. The film hinges on Barbra’s decision to move into the West or to remain in the East.  For me the reasons she may decide to remain in the East were too weak. Especially seeing as so much depended on the authorities keeping their word and not changing their mind on a whim – something the film reveals they do repeatedly.

Perhaps you have to be German to see the power of this film? Certainly the cinema last night was filled with German’s and although I couldn’t understand the language the “buzz” after the film was high and it received enthusiastic applause. Perhaps the subtlety is something of a relief?  German’s may be sick of seeing themselves as Kraftwerk-worshipping-latex-wearing-  dominatrices.  That wouldn’t surprise me, and the film certainly reveals a different, gentler German image than the one we tend to plaster over them without much thought.  As I said above, the feel here was one I am familiar with seeing in a Czech or Polish film, rather than German films.

The film also says a lot about the stoic, gentle power of the people who endured life under the communist regime, and I can imagine there is a great joy in seeing that portrayed lovingly on the screen.

Perhaps a lot of it was lost on a little white Aussie chic.