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The masterly effects of European restraint over Hollywood excess

PetzoldThe German film Barbara, directed by Christian Petzold, is set in East Germany in the 80’s, and follows a young doctor, Barbara (a performance of intensely reined in emotion by Nina Hoss) who is under surveillance by the authorities, and is planning defection to the West, as her boyfriend is from `across the wall’

Any successful dictatorship survives best when it can persuade the oppressed to carry out its work for them by making everyone suspicious of everyone else, and by being able to exert the possible blackmail of pressure being put on the friends and family of those who step out of line. The result (as is beautifully shown here) is that if you don’t quite know who you can trust, who might be friend and who might be informer, the best thing to do is to batten down the hatches of your own responses, guarding not only your actions and your speech, but also the expressiveness of your readable emotions, in order to avoid interpretations by watchers who may be apparatchiks of the ruling elite.

Hoss and PetzoldThis leads to an intensely pervasive atmosphere of paranoia and inhibition. And it really shows which actors are overindulgent in showing subtext because they doubt the intelligence of the audience at reading what is going on, and those actors who can properly inhabit the truth and objectives of the characters they are playing. And the actors here manage this beautifully. Barbara, in Hoss’s superb portrayal, for the most part completely controls her outwardly shown responses, and we, the audience, only really see what is going on Barbara posterwhen she thinks she is unobserved, or when the unexpected – sudden noises for example – briefly force a jumpiness which shows the tension within, before she quickly returns to impassivity. There are a couple of sequences where some fairly unpleasant body searches will occur. Hollywood would no doubt have shown this with graphic overabandon. Directorial choice here shows both interrogators and interrogated reining in responses – the interrogators are not displayed as deranged twitching cartoon characters, but as men and women going about their daily work (and all the more chilling for that) and the viewer does not actually see what happens, but it is obvious what WILL happen, and also what HAS happened from the increasing automatic response to the unexpected, which breaks, more and more, through Barbara’s attempts at self-control

I had to stop watching at one point, through over-identification with the character. A brilliant piece of film-making, as it engages the audience’s own powerful imagination, which ratchets up the suspense much much higher (well, it did for me) than the overdone splatter of brutality.

Although it is life behind a very Iron Curtain, and how people survive and Opi-Zehrfeld-DW-Kultur-Genfaccommodate it, which is the main focus, as an offset to the bleakness are some beautifully tender relationships of trust which slowly build between Barbara, her fellow doctor and superior (who is possibly also charged with making sure she does not step out of political line) and their vulnerable patients. Barbara’s colleague Andre – an equally fine, unstated, warmer performance by Ronald Zehrfeld – must also struggle with some complex matters, and has to find the line between his position as a healer and whether healing should only be given to the good and moral amongst us

The end is surprising and in some ways, inconclusive – we can only surmise, as this is a film in many ways more filled with silence, and private thought unverbalised, than it is with explanations.
Barbara Amazon UK
Barbara Amazon USA – though do note that it only seems to be available for non-USA PAL format viewing

I received this as a review copy from the Amazon Vine programme