Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Christian Petzold's BARBARA, set in the GDR, gives Nina Hoss another first-class role

Another Christian Petzold movie that's slow-moving yet not uninteresting, well-cast and -acted (with the filmmaker's muse Nina Hoss again at the center), after the viewing of which I found myself, as ever (Yella, Jerichow), somewhat dissatisfied yet still glad to have seen to film. What is it about Petzold's movies that put me off a bit? Perhaps their slowness, during which you'll have caught the ideas small and large, and so want the film to catch up with you. With BARBARA, the filmmaker takes you inside the German Democratic Republic (that's the ex-East Germany, for you kids) where citizens spying on each other takes pride of place and so leaves nearly everybody at risk, distrustful & untrustworthy.

Herr Petzold, shown at left, who co-wrote the film with Harun Farocki, gives us in his heroine, the film's titular character, a doctor who is being spied upon because, ostensibly, she has asked to leave for the west. Barbara is played by Ms Hoss (below), and this is possibly her finest role yet (unless you count the juicily entertaining vampire saga, We Are the Night). Barbara knows the GDR ropes well, however, and how best to play them. But as will happen is life and movies, the woman becomes attracted to her co-worker André, a doctor (Ronald Zehrfeld, shown two photos below) who quickly admits that he's been ordered to spy on her. Barbara also becomes a little too attached to her female patient, a young girl from a nearby forced labor camp who turn out to be pregnant. For his part, André, too, becomes attached to his new patient, a young man who has attempted suicide and, though he appears to be getting better, may yet have some heavy-duty residual damage going on in his brain.

There's a lot going on in Barbara, and yet not much happens, and what does--a search or two of our heroine's quarters and even her body itself, a meeting in a secluded forest with her lover--is shown quietly and slowly.

Yet the time (1980, nearly a decade prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall) and place conspire to make the movie especially fraught. Injustice like this seems even more difficult to bear when your neighbors and co-workers conspire against you. And so we begin to hate the man who appears to be in charge of Barbara's harassment. But then, a little more than midway along, we get a scene that in some ways changes everything. Not the reality of what is happening: That continues apace. But how we feel about the people who are doing this begins to change. We can see them as all terribly used by the state and our sympathy becomes more inclusive.

Petzold has always managed this well, I think -- the sense of being able to place ourselves in more diverse shoes than we might have imagined possible. And why not. In the end we are all victims. But I question his storytelling skills. Things could indeed move more quickly, and in this film, more than in his others, there is quite the sentimental streak at work. And while we're happy for the way things turn out, they do beggar belief a bit.

Barbara -- from Adopt Films and running 105 minutes -- is available now via Netflix streaming, as well as elsewhere (Amazon Instant Video) and on DVD.

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