Thursday, January 10, 2013

Another Brick in the Wall: Christian Petzold's Barbara

Nina Hoss, who starred in Christian Petzold’s Yella (2007) and Jerichow (2008) and plays the title role in his new film, Barbara, knows how to forge a direct line of communication with the audience even when she’s convincingly playing a character who keeps everyone else at arm’s length. In Jerichow, she played a woman who loathed her husband, and whose feelings toward her lover, who she’s enlisted in a murder plot, couldn’t be clearly sorted out, maybe because she couldn’t fully sort them out herself. In Barbara, which is set in East Germany in 1980, nine years before the Wall came down, Hoss plays a gifted, dedicated doctor whose career in Berlin has been derailed after she requested an exit visa. Released from police custody and exiled to the provinces, she remains hard and unsmiling, doing her best to signal to the world around her that she isn’t happy about her changed circumstances but has resigned herself to her fate. Meanwhile, to the camera, her every fiery glance quietly sends the message that she’s bustin’ outta here.

At her new job, she meets Andre Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld), a sweetly solicitous young doctor who is immediately drawn to her. Their scenes together dramatize the everyday sexual politics of life in a police state: he can scarcely help but be attracted to the intense, beautiful woman who’s become his professional colleague as a punishment, just as she can’t help but be suspicious of his motives – is he informing on her to the Stasi? Having tried every other way to break down her stony reserve, Reiser finally shares his own back story: he, too, was driven from Berlin, as the consequence of a horrible medical mishap for which he wasn’t directly responsible but for which he nobly feels he was to blame. Naturally, this only makes Barbara more suspicious of him. “Was my story too long?” he asks in frustration. Actually, the story is too damn good, too perfectly shaped to pull them closer together.

The dark comedy of these scenes is all the more heartbreaking for Ronald Zerfeld’s shaggy, bearish charm. (He suggests a more soulfully sensitive Russell Crowe.) But Barbara’s reluctance to give in to those charms also illuminates her character and confirms her status as the movie’s heroine. Her inability to trust Reiser is colored by a reluctance to hurt him; in her own mind, after all, she’s just passing through. (First, do no harm.) Barbara is seemingly more open with her West German lover (Mark Waschke), but scarcely more relaxed. The two of them meet in a hotel room and in the woods near her home, for calisthenic sex, and to plan her escape to Denmark. 
director Christian Petzold

She may well be really prepared to marry him, but his every utterance – his suggestion that he simply move to East Germany so they can be together, his assurances that, once she’s his wife, she won’t have to work – only underline how little he knows her. At one point during their hotel date, he’s briefly called away, and Barbara has a sisters-under-the-skin encounter with his partner’s hooker, who sneaks in from the adjoining room to check out the accommodations. It’s just a brief exchange with someone with whom she has little in common, who she’ll never see again, but it’s the closest she ever comes to a chance to exhale.

Christian Petzold uses thriller plots to set up his movies, but he goes in unexpected directions with them; the real excitement in Barbara, as in much of his previous work, is internal. It has less to do with whether Barbara will make it out of the country than in finding out what she prioritizes over her own freedom; ultimately, it’s about how good and useful a life someone like Barbara can have while knowing she’s trapped. It’s a much better movie, in every way – tighter, richer in character, more politically sophisticated – than the wildly praised The Lives of Others, which came to the na├»ve but reassuring conclusion that the people who keep a police state running – at least, the ones who are just drones working under the dirty-minded pigs in charge – would see what they’re doing is wrong if they’d just get to know their victims and let a little poetry and classical music touch their souls, after which they might not be able to bring the system down, but would feel just awful about their part in it.

The Stasi agent (Rainer Bock) who keeps invading Barbara’s room and ordered that she be subjected to cavity searches is just a guy doing his job, and if he might cut her a break because he owes Reiser a favor – the doctor is secretly giving morphine to his dying wife – that’s because trading favors is how things are done, not because he’s had an epiphany. (It’s Barbara who, in the name of refusing to compromise with the state apparatus, gives in to cruelty by demanding to know why Reiser doesn’t just let the woman suffer.) If there’s an epiphany in Barbara, it comes at the very end, when the sight of Hoss’ face yields to the sound of Chic’s “At Last I Am Free” over the closing credits. No disco ballad used in a movie has sounded as much, or so unironically, like a hymn.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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