Film: Barbara (2012)

January 1, 2013 | By

Return to: Home Blu-ray, DVD, Film Reviews / B

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Film: Excellent / DVD Transfer:  n/a / DVD Extras: n/a

Label: n/a/ Region: n/a / Released: n/a

Genre:  Drama / Suspense

Synopsis: A doctor ‘re-assigned’ to a country hospital awaits her turn to flee from Communist East Germany.

Special Features:  n/a

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Review:

Even when making a period film set in they heyday of Stazi-infected East Germany, circa 1980, writer / director Christian Petzold manages to successfully filter his view of a woman vying to escape from an oppressive regime through his extremely peculiar filter.

Barbara’s (Nina Hoss) recent ‘re-assignment’ to a hospital in an armpit country town doesn’t deter her from engaging in secret meetings and cash drop-offs as she becomes next in-line to escape to Denmark with a part-time lover. Potentially foiling her plans is the young chief surgeon (Ronald Zehrfeld) who’s either wholly sympathetic to her status as an unfavoured citizen, or part of the secret police’s team, assigned to gain her trust and expose her as a traitor of the worker’s state.

The monkey wrenches Petzold uses to distract, unsettle, unnerve, and upset Barbara – a humanistic doctor burned for caring too much in a prior life – aren’t new or revolutionary, but his unique method of isolating and fixating on nuances almost ensures our focus is exclusively on two characters. It’s his strongest skill a filmmaker because his fixations never come off as pretentious nor quirky directorial affectations; in Petzold’s hands, all drama is constructed with near architectural precision.

Like prior films Wolfsberg or Gespenster, there are no specific environmental details which give away the story’s exact location, nor any deep-focus wide shots to establish the mood of his largely real locations. Petzold maintains a low depth of field throughout most of the film so the only character that really matters – when moving through a room, standing in the hospital hallway, or walking through the entranceways of her miserable apartment complex – is Barbara, and Hoss remains Petzold’s ideal canvas because the actress is able to exhibit just the slightest of reactions to match Petzold’s world of characters forced to repress their emotions due to circumstances and an overwhelming sense of distrust. When she does bleed a small smile, the effect is immense because it breaks through the dourness of a highly guarded life.

Just as Barbara is wary of Andre, patient Stella (Jasna Frizi Bauer) trusts no one because as a rebellious ward of the state, her fate is to be shuttled off to work in Torgau, which Barbara brands a concentration camp for wayward girls. That shared fear of the state (as well as Andre) creates a bond between the two women which ultimately returns to Barbara a small measure of her emotions after being so cautious and protective for so long. Petzold’s visual focus ensures everything shown is through Barbara’s eyes, including her dealings with the Stazi, a nosey building manager, and finding personal possessions occasionally ‘disturbed.’

Tension for Barbara’s dangerous rendezvous come from the banality of the locations as well as the seaside fields which seem perpetually blasted by outrageous, high-velocity winds. There’s also the use of decrepit buildings which evoke a country whose existence is sustained only by filling in cracks with hasty, handmade caulking; and typical of the Communist regime (albeit filtered through western sensibilities and biases), the streets are often empty, the stores have Spartan goods and no customers, and restaurants are empty, causing employees to be rudely reactive to customers.

These are largely conveyed through nuances, and the simplicity of their implementation – call it borderline subtext at its bare minimum – is contrasted by Petzold’s precise use of sound which is anything but naturalistic. Whether it’s Barbara drawing on a cigarette or the modest wind-up clocks clacking away in apartments, Petzold uses sound in a manner that’s as precise as his visual design, and perhaps the venue where everything tends to converge is the automobile.

Much like Wolfsburg, characters discuss and readjust the parameters of their tense relationships while being conveyed in cars, and Petzold layers almost fetishistic nuances of vehicles in motion. The sound design is also potent in the train montages, but in place of score (of which the film has none) and traditional sound design evoking realism, Petzold uses revving engines, shifting gears, turn signal clicks, and the rumbling undercarriage as it shifts across coarse and smooth surfaces to score his core dialogue scenes, and not unlike Tarkovsky’s use of unedited visuals and droning sound textures, Petzold’s scenes have a strange calming effect, almost lulling the viewer into a relaxed state which, at least for his core audience, is never dull.

Both set décor and locations are first-rate, and tension often comes from the unsaid, the unseen, and the implied, especially the injustices and horrors of the secret police invading the lives of ordinary citizens. Barbara is a remarkable little film, and is certainly more accessible than Petzold’s Wolfsburg [M] (2003), Yella [M] (2007), and Gespenster / Ghosts [M] (2005) – films where the resolutions are anything but neat and clean.

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© 2012 Mark R. Hasan

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External References:

IMDB

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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