Barbara (2012), written and directed by Christian Petzold, is a remarkable film. It may well be the best so far of all the German films made in recent years on the still very much contentious subject of the defunct German Democratic Republic (GDR). Generally speaking, such films, at least the ones that have reached an international audience, tend to fall into two categories: those tinted by nostalgia (in German the term Ostalgie – combining the words for ‘east’ and ‘nostalgia’ – is the label used for cultural expressions of nostalgia for the GDR) and those who, on the contrary, portray the GDR as a place of undiluted evil. Good Bye, Lenin! (2003) and The Lives of Others (2006) are probably the best-known examples of the respective category. Barbara treads a path beyond these ideological dead-end alleys.
It would be nearly impossible to accuse Barbara of GDR-nostalgia. Its depiction of how the state security apparatus infiltrates even the most intimate relations can rival that of The Lives of Others. The oppressed mood of the unnamed small town by the Baltic Sea, the film’s setting, is reminiscent of the suffocating feeling permeating life in the early twentieth century German village in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009). Recurring images of the northern coastal landscape at dusk and dawn, of its winding forest roads and windy, deserted beaches, emanate a horror movie eeriness that returns, also, in the corridors and rooms of the old-fashioned, austere hospital where much of the action takes place. But simultaneously Petzold gives to his characters, including the local Stasi (secret police) officer, a degree of human depth and moral complexity sufficient to avoid turning them into one-dimensional caricatures.
Barbara, the film’s eponymous heroine played by Nina Hoss, is a young doctor who, having applied for permission to leave the country, is punished by being transferred from Berlin’s prestigious Charité hospital to a new position in the countryside. Arriving here she is already planning to flee the country with the help of her West German boyfriend, Jörg. Thus it all starts out as the classic tale of East versus West, freedom versus oppression, that forever wants to limit us to remaking the same old ideological choice between Stalinism and market capitalism. However, as the film goes on, Barbara develops two new relationships that bit by bit open up this mental straightjacket: to the local chief physician, André (Ronald Zehrfeld) and to her work itself, her role as a doctor. Just possibly the answer to the emptiness in her life is not necessarily to be found in the West.
But Petzold accomplishes this gradual re-evaluation without for a moment falling into Ostalgie. Intriguingly the dark cloud hanging over the head of André from the very beginning never quite lifts, even as he simultaneously takes on the role of the film’s moral compass through his sincerely idealistic attitude to his work. We meet him first chatting in an evidently friendly manner with Klaus, a Stasi officer, who informs him about Barbara’s background. André immediately develops an intense interest in Barbara, something that under the circumstances naturally arouses her (and our) suspicions. Is he combining work and pleasure, surveillance and love interest? Every one of their conversations inevitably turns ambiguous. They are forced to interpret each other’s words, to guess and read between the lines.
In this situation work becomes the bridge between them. Only on this subject is straight communication possible. Their attraction is therefore built initially on mutual professional respect and the honest care they both express for their patients. But on this foundation the film suggests the possibility of an egalitarian and comradely ideal relationship, a possibility that puts Barbara’s relationship with Jörg in a new light. It is Barbara and Jörg that most strikingly fail to communicate. As when Jörg, envisioning their joint future, promises Barbara that she can soon sleep late every morning as he makes enough money for both of them. This is clearly not the ‘freedom’ that Barbara longs for (and this is obviously a comment on West Germany’s conservative family politics). Nevertheless, Petzold doesn’t err from his intention to avoid all cheap targets, no self-important West Germans, no monstrous Stasi officers. Jörg’s offer clearly comes from the heart, not from a male chauvinist over-evaluation of his own career, something that is evident when he next offers, instead, to defect to the GDR if that is what it takes to be with Barbara.
Paradoxically, the choices that Barbara eventually ends up making – after a dramatic chain of events, that I will not detail here – could be described in terms superficially compatible with those of the ideal citizen of the GDR: an egalitarian, comradely relationship and ‘solidarity with the workers and peasants that have paid for her education’, quoting a piece of propaganda-speak that occurs in one of Barbara and André’s conversations. At that point, however, it is clear that André is as aware as Barbara is of the discrepancy between reality and propaganda. But, as he points out, ‘it is not really such a bad idea’. In their own personal way, Barbara and André liberate the good idea from its historical cage.
Barbara premiered in Germany in March of this year and is now making its way through Europe and beyond.
Daniel Lindvall is Film International’s editor-in-chief.