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“Barbara” is so quiet and hushed it’s as if the movie is afraid someone is listening. It is. It’s set in East Germany, 1980, and we don’t know whom to trust, and we wait for information that never comes. Our title character, Barbara (Nina Hoss), a Berlin doctor, now lives and works in a provincial town near the Baltic Sea because of something that attracted the attention of the Stasi, the secret police. She probably tried to escape but we never find out for sure. She’s not revealing much—to us or to the other people in the town. She’s a bit distant, a bit Deneuve. One of her patients tries to kill himself by jumping out a three-story window and the fear is he’ll lose his memory; but his memory turns out just fine. It’s his emotions that are lost. He feels nothing. One assumes he’s a symbol for the country.
That Catherine Deneuve reference isn’t tossed off lightly, by the way. Hoss is stunning, distant, sexy. I could watch her neck for hours, which I get to do here. I also wondered to what extent the film’s accolades owe to Hoss’s looks. Would we care as much about Barbara’s story if she were fat and dumpy, with dark, straggly hair? And would we agree with the ending if the West German lover she decided to abandon was the handsome bearded man with amused eyes (Ronald Zehrfeld) and the East German doctor she returned to was the bland company man with the receding hairline (Mark Waschke)? Just how shallow are we?
The movie begins with Barbara being jostled (on the bus) and then being watched (from the second-story window of the hospital) by two men, one Stasi, the other bearded with amused eyes, who turns out to be André, the chief of pediatric surgery at the hospital. It’s her first day but she’s smoking a cigarette on a bench outside the hospital. “She won’t be one second too early,” the officer says. “If she were 6, you’d say she was sulking.”
André tries to inculcate her into the hospital life but she trusts no one. The others think she’s stuck-up, Berlinish. “You shouldn’t be so separated,” André warns her, driving her home one day. But he fails to ask for directions to her place, which she picks up on. “You’re groomed,” she tells him. “And here’s where I separate.”
No one trusts anyone. The Stasi keep showing up, led by the bland, bored Klaus Schütz (Rainer Bock), to turn her room and search her body cavities. The apartment manager, Mrs. Bungert (Rosa Enskat), is abrupt and suspicious and domineering and put-upon. At night, imperious and annoyed, she leads Barbara into the basement storage facilities, where Barbara finds a bicycle tire, flat, which she fixes in her bathtub. The bike gives her a degree of independence. It allows her to stay separate.
Where is she going? We have no idea. At this point we’re just following. She takes the bike to a train, and then walks to a restaurant. She asks for the restroom and spies, on the way, all the waitresses on their backs with their legs elevated against the wall. It looks absurd but they’re just fighting varicose veins. One of the waitresses then gives her a thick package, money it turns out, which Barbara hides in a gravestone near her apartment. The Stasi soon return to toss the place.
In this manner we piece together her plan to escape to West Germany, but many things escape us—or at least me. We’re supposed to know that her lover, Jörg (Waschke), is already in West Germany, but I didn’t. The have a rendezvous in the woods, with an official standing by his Mercedes, fending off the interests of a local. How did this come about? How does a West German schedule a rendezvous in East Germany? Money, I suppose. Money greases all wheels. But initially I didn’t pick up on this, so I mistook the local’s interest for mere nosiness. Maybe it was. Maybe he was less interested in a whiff of the freedom and riches of West Germany than in wondering how a bit of West Germany wound up so near his home.
Helping the dying
During this waiting period, Barbara draws closer to André. She demonstrates her medical prowess by correcting him on a meningitis case; then she demonstrated her well-hidden warmth by caring for a girl, Stella (Jasna Fritz Bauer), and reading “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to her by her bedside. Is André smitten or spying? He shows up at Barbara’s apartment, laments the poorly tuned piano she was requisitioned, sends her a tuner to fix it. During a night shift he lets her sleep, then wakes her with coffee. He tells her how he wound up there. A woman covering his shift in Berlin misread the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales on an incubator for premature babies. Pressure built up, the babies’ retinas became detached, they were blinded for life. This was the deal he was offered. She questions him about the incubator: the make and model. “Was my story too long?” he asks, sensing her skepticism. “Is the story true?” she asks later. Neither answers the other. Everything hangs heavy in the silence between these shorts bits of conversation.
But his small acts of kindness wear her down. She begins to trust him. She becomes attracted to him. When she searches for him in town, she finds Schütz of the Stasi there. Turns out he’s caring for Schütz’s wife, who’s dying of cancer. We get this exchange:
Barbara: Is this usual for you?
André: Helping the dying?
Barbara: Helping assholes.
André: When they’re dying, yes.
Throughout Christian Petzold’s “Barbara” I was reminded of the Iranian film “Goodbye” (2011) by Mohammad Rasoulof. An attractive professional woman (lawyer in Iran, doctor here) is involved in the slow machinations of escape from an oppressive regime, and hearing, too often, those loud knocks on the door. It doesn’t work for the pregnant Noora. At the end of “Goodbye,” she’s caught and arrested. It could’ve worked for Barbara. But at the end, she sends Stella, pregnant, across the Baltic Sea in her place. She gives up what she’s been striving the entire movie for. To be with André? To help with the dying.
December 26, 2012
© 2012 Erik Lundegaard