With those large, wary eyes heavily lined in black and those fine blonde curls pulled back from her striking, somewhat gaunt face, the eponymous country doctor of German director Christian Petzold’s Barbara is from the start of figure of interest, one who appears to take no interest in the rest of us. Untroubled by the chilliness of the impression she makes upon her colleagues, never so much smoking as propping up cigarettes, Barbara arrives in this backwater to start work at its hospital, having been exiled from Berlin for unspecified offenses. It’s never announced explicitly, but we’re clearly back at some point in the 1980s, in a divided Germany, following the mysterious activities of a cagey, furtive, equally divided heroine.
Cageyness is elemental to all three of the Petzold films I’ve now seen—besides Barbara, I’ve also enjoyed its immediate predecessors Yella (2007) and Jerichow (2008)—each of which star the imminently watchable Nina Hoss. Petzold is very good with gauging distances, his camera very selective about when it grants us closer looks at faces or objects or anything that might contain secrets. Barbara doles out exposition slowly and carefully, building intrigue and unease, and Hoss, with her particular control of how shifts in thought register in her face and body, helps Petzold turn this building into a form of seduction. There are good reasons for Barbara’s iciness. She’s being watched. Sometimes that watching spills over into a house search and, even less pleasantly, a body cavity search. Barbara keeps a straight face through all of it.
To be sure, the reticence and measured pace of exposition in Barbara also function well as a way of distracting us from the airtight schematics of its plot. The script, written by Petzold and Harun Farocki, leaves little to chance with regards to setting up and underlining its heroine’s dilemma. Barbara, we gradually learn, is planning an escape from East Germany—but if she goes, who will care for the pregnant runaway with meningitis who trusts only her? Barbara’s escape is being facilitated by a handsome and apparently wealthy secret paramour who promises Barbara that once she’s safe in Denmark she’ll never have to work again—but how does this tailored savior compare to the Barbara’s fawning new colleague? Doctor André (Ronald Zehrfeld) has little to offer with regards to worldly comforts, but he’s warm, handsome in a beefy, teddybear sort of way, and most importantly, he’s devoted to his vocation, treating patients during his time off. He also cooks, and even has his own herb garden!
I’m being a little facetious, but really, the point I want to make is that while the mechanics of Barbara’s story arc feel exceedingly tidy, the film’s execution, its deft handling of tension, its loving development of character and sense of place, its understanding of the nature of quiet heroism and sacrifice, and most especially Hoss’ embodiment of an entire era’s atmosphere of distrust and discomfort—even in what would under other circumstances seem like a very charming bucolic setting—all serve to make this character study-as-political allegory a deeply satisfying experience. Movies these days offer far too few dynamic repeat pairings of directors with actresses, but the Petzold and Hoss team, the both of them auteurs in their way, is one I hope to see return in many future variations.