Sunday, January 6, 2013


 3.5 / 5 

Wherever she is, whatever time of day it may be, whether she is alone in the middle of the woods or surrounded by colleagues at the hospital where she is a doctor, Barbara knows she isn't safe.

Every set of eyes is on her, and those that aren't could very well be.  Some time ago, Barbara made a formal request to leave Communist-ruled East Germany.  It was denied, and her audacity left her incarcerated.  It's 1980 now, the height of the Cold War, and Barbara has been released from jail but not from suspicion.

Here in the same movie season as Zero Dark Thirty, a big-budget American movie about a decade-long manhunt that cost billions of dollars in a quest to fight terror, is Barbara, a micro-budgeted German film about the kind of quiet, simple, unrelenting terror that even the most ardent conservative war mongerer could hardly imagine.  In Barbara, the physical battles are long since over and true terror is a daily way of life.

With secret, well-hidden scars from her last life still healing, Barbara is assigned to a small pediatric hospital in an anonymous town, and she intends to let nothing affect her.  She goes to work, she does her job, she prefers not to socialize, she goes home and steals nervous glances out her curtains to see whether the Stasi agent assigned to keep watch on her is doing his job.  He usually is.

Barbara can find moments of freedom only when she's on her bicycle, and she's using it to help carry out a plan, the pieces of which come together slowly, bit by bit.

In Barbara's life, no one is above suspicion, and this includes the handsome doctor who seems genuinely kind -- but who readily admits that he is living in his own kind of purgatory for having played a role in a tragic accident, and whose own punishment includes filing reports for the government about Barbara.

The arrival of two very different patients lead to difficult decisions, and throughout Barbara this slow, deliberate, beautifully crafted film takes pains to remind viewers that while no one in Soviet-ruled East Germany was innocent, every one of them was intensely human, with his own secret sorrows.

Barbara is a thoughtful movie, a cinematic equivalent of a short story that places theme, tone and characterizations at the fore -- there is a plot, and it's surprisingly rich, but Barbara comes upon it obliquely, which makes the ultimate decision Barbara faces that much more touching.

Through it all is the actress Nina Hoss as Barbara, who almost never smiles despite a pretty face, who smokes incessantly because there's little else to do in a world where a walk to the grocery store could lead to a late-night police invasion.  Her demeanor is stern, harsh, uncaring, but her heart holds much more than she could ever begin to explain.

Barbara is not a film for people who enjoy a straightforward narrative.  But it's a strong, fine example of the kind of cinema that evokes a time, place and mindset with alarming explicitness.  By the end, Barbara has you feeling much more deeply than you thought you could about this unexpected woman, whose severity only hides how desperately she wants to feel again.

Viewed Jan. 6, 2013 - Sundance Sunset


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