'Barbara' portrays life behind Iron Curtain

Nina Hoss plays anEast German doctor trying to escape to the west in "Barbara."
Nina Hoss plays anEast German doctor trying to escape to the west in "Barbara." (CHRISTIAN SCHULZ)
Posted: March 08, 2013

The wind blows cold and hard in the East German backwater, where the title character of Barbara, a Berlin doctor in exile, finds herself. Watched over by the secret police, by nosy neighbors, by the staff at the bare-bones hospital she has been reassigned to, Barbara (an amazingly composed Nina Hoss) smokes her cigarettes and sees her patients and bicycles back and forth from her drab apartment to work.

And quietly, she plots her escape.

Christian Petzold's masterfully hushed, suspenseful thriller percolates with dread. Hoss' physician - she is smart, skilled, self-assured - moves through her days in a cocoon of solitude, waiting to hear from her lover (Mark Waschke), who is making arrangements to spirit her off to the west. She sneaks into a hotel where he is visiting to make love. They meet in the woods. They plan.

And back at the hospital, there is her younger colleague, André (Ronald Zehrfeld), a bright and earnest physician who also may be an informant for the Stasi. Like the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others, another evocatively gloomy Iron Curtain-era character study, a profound wariness hangs in the air. Mistrust is everywhere.

Barbara befriends a patient, Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), a teenage runaway from a work camp. As the two women grow closer, Barbara finds herself pulled by conflict, by cross-purposes.

Hoss, wearing her blond hair pulled back tight, and wearing an expression of inscrutable melancholy, gives a performance that doesn't feel like a performance at all. Her Barbara is absolutely real, and absolutely trapped. The film is aching, and exquisite.

Barbara **** (out of four stars)

Directed by Christian Petzold. With Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, and Rainer Bock. In German with subtitles. Distributed by Adopt Films.

Running time: 1 hour, 45 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (sex, adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz Five

Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.


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