Christian Petzold’s new film “Barbara,” opening Friday, Dec. 21, at SIFF Film Center (formerly the Alki Room) at Seattle Center, takes us back to 1980 in rural East Germany. The Berlin Wall will fall in less than a decade, Germany will be reunited and the USSR, along with the communist Eastern Bloc, will cease to exist.
But these things are in the future from where “Barbara” starts, and lie too far off to be contemplated. In 1980, Eastern Communism is roughly 35 years old and healthy. The only way people can ever hope to know freedom is to run to it.
Barbara, played by prominent German actress Nina Hoss, made the mistake of trying toward that freedom the legal, aboveboard way. She served the government notice that she wished to leave East Germany. As punishment, she loses her job as a doctor at East Berlin’s prestigious Charité hospital and is sent to a small hospital near the Baltic Sea.
The movie bears a rough resemblance to Akira Kurosawa’s “Red Beard,” from 1965, in which Kayama Yuzo plays a promising young doctor exiled to the sticks, and the cantankerous Mifune Toshiro is his supervisor and mentor. In that film, however, the young physician’s misfortune seems more personal and certainly do not stem from the state.
And in Petzold’s film, the exile’s supervisor, Dr. Andre Reiser (played by Ronald Zehrfeld), does not come across as a crank. Indeed, with his brown beard and warm eyes, he seems to win the love of every patient he comes across. Barbara keeps her head down as the new member of his team, but even she gradually and awkwardly grows enchanted with her colleague.
The inner struggle
A lot of the awkwardness stems from Barbara’s reticence. We are never sure to what extent her inner personality dictates her distance from the world and to what extent her desire to escape and her need to keep safe against the state has to do with it.
The doctor gives away very little. She breathes in measured inhales and exhales. Her face sometimes seems frozen. In her eyes, but only in her eyes, do we see the struggles she faces within.
Sometimes, her troubles wear human faces and tangible forms. Klaus Shutz (played by Rainer Bock) is the local officer for the Stasi, or East German secret police. His job is to keep an eye on everyone while trusting no one, and Barbara is already suspect.
But the film also demonstrates the endless paranoia and self-inflicted suspicion of living in a police state. Someone might find you smoking the wrong kind of cigarettes — the kind from West Germany — and decide to report you to the Stasi. Simple moments such as a stop in the woods to admire scenery, a bicycle ride in nice weather or visiting a friend can hold hidden meanings, secret aspects a whisker away from exposure.
A teenage girl named Stella (played by Jansa Fritzi Bauer) also plays a crucial part. Reluctant to work and slovenly, she seems simply lazy at first. But the film shows what happens in this society to anyone with any ideas contrary to the state.
Like the eccentric orbit of Pluto, she swings out of the action of the film only to return at a crucial moment when Barbara must act on her longstanding plans.
“Barbara” makes no bones about the coldness and repressive savagery of its world. But its human spirits are only flickering, not extinguished.
Barbara understands the rules, the consequences of breaking those rules and her own choices. In the end, she must decide what it best for everyone. Her self-sacrifice takes her beyond anything the state ever taught her.