Set a film in East Germany during the Cold War, and we typically know what to expect: a grim, dour, enclosed place where the citizenry suffocate in the thin air of rampant suspicion and pervasive distrust. Barbara is intriguing because the script subtly plays off that expectation, not denying it so much as expanding it, showing us that the grey world can contain, and even embrace, contradictory colours. Sometimes, the sun shines and the wind blows fresh and the very elements that make for intense hardship also open a window on intense joy.
It's 1980, and Barbara (Nina Hoss) disembarks from a train at a rural station. A doctor from Berlin, she committed the misdeed of applying for an exit visa to be with her West German boyfriend, a sin punished by banishment to a post in a rural hospital. There, townsfolk regard the woman warily, not because of her political taint, but for more traditional reasons – she's a city slicker and they're bumpkins. The exception is Andre, the shaggy-haired yet sophisticated chief-of-staff (Ronald Zehrfeld). He seems to be drawn to her; then again, that's his second job. He's obliged to report to the state on her day-to-day behaviour, a fact of Communist life that she fully knows.
Writer/director Christian Petzold establishes these early scenes with a keen eye for visual and emotional detail. Like the furnished apartment assigned to Barbara, with its Formica countertop and its untuned piano and the coal that must be shovelled to heat the bath water. Or like the homemade lab that Andre has built in a spare hospital room, the better to manufacture serums that would otherwise take bureaucratic months to arrive. Or like the sudden glances, the quick looks that keep darting up from beneath Barbara's cold façade, always directed at Andre and his laid-back affability. His warmth feels genuine, but may just be a trap designed to snare her. Since human dialogue and the dialogue of the state are so interwoven, it's impossible to unbraid the two. Or is it?
That lingering question is precisely what gives even the simplest conversation in this totalitarian regime such intensity. So there's suspense in these frames, although a brand that's deliberately mild in its makeup and awfully slow in its buildup (too slow at times). Don't expect the heightened drama and the brutish spies of Funeral in Berlin. Instead, when the Stasi drop in for their regular visits, they search Barbara's apartment and her body with the bored detachment of a gas man reading the meter. It's a job, mostly routine – the villains get on with it, the victim puts up with it.
Yet she does have something to hide: Paying visits in his Mercedes, boyfriend Jorg has been smuggling her money and plotting her escape. In the interim, she bonds with her patients (especially a battered, no-hope girl named Stella) and continues her delicate dance with Andre. Whatever might divide them, they're both exemplary physicians harbouring a passion for their work. Toiling beside him in the hospital, she feels needed; lying beside Jorg in a hotel room, she feels wanted. The West beckons, but the East has deep roots in her heart.
None of these tensions is conveyed directly through words which, after all, are dangerous commodities here. Rather, Petzold relies exclusively on his lead actors, and they respond superbly, particularly Hoss who suggests her growing conflict through nuanced shifts in tone and gesture – a slight lightening of her voice, a rare smile that almost seems to take her by surprise. Better still, not only does she command the screen and demand our attention, but her sub-textual performance neatly excavates the sub-textual theme.
Which is this: In a land where fear and suspicion rule, the exception is worth fighting for and, perhaps, worth staying for. The flip side of a deep, political distrust is an equally deep, personal love if the distrust proves unfounded. Obviously, that's a very big "if." Nevertheless, in the grey East Germany of 1980, nothing is certain, not even despair.