Like the Academy Award-winning “The Life of Others,” “Barbara” lays bare the casual cruelty and utter emptiness of the East German Communist regime, but without quite the same degree of impact. Still, Christian Petzold’s film is an intriguing character study set against the backdrop of a dark time in history.
The focus is on the title figure, played by Nina Hoss. Barbara is a nurse who’s been exiled from Berlin in 1980 for some ideological infraction and sent to work in a remote provincial hospital. She’s lodged in a small apartment where the landlady keeps close watch on her, and is subject to unannounced, and humiliating, visits from a stern security agent and his none-too-gentle staff. It’s little wonder that she’s standoffish and brusque with her new co-workers, though head physician Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) greets her warmly, offers drives home and even shares his self-built laboratory with her.
The one thing that makes Barbara’s personal life tolerable are the occasional trysts she can manage with her West German lover (Mark Waschke), who comes to the East on business and is planning her escape to Denmark. He supplies her with money to pay a man who’s agreed to spirit her to freedom in his tiny boat.
But those plans are upended by a couple of changes. One is Barbara’s growing sense of comradeship with Andre, whom she comes to understand is an exile like herself but one who finds service even to his enemies as meaningful and necessary. The other is the arrival at the hospital of Stella (Jesna Fritzi Bauer), a troubled girl who’s escaped a state work camp and must be treated for meningitis. Their joint work on the case brings her and Andre closer as they work to secure the necessary remedy for the girl. But Barbara’s compassionate instincts are further encouraged by the revelation that Stella is pregnant and in desperate need of her help.
Petzold might have played this material in a maudlin fashion, but he resists the inclination to sentimentalize, electing instead a cool-headed, observational approach that doesn’t allow the film to degenerate into banal soap opera. Hoss responds with a performance in which one can glimpse the natural humanity that lies beneath the nurse’s hard-boiled exterior. And she’s well matched by Zehrfeld, whose easygoing, gentle manner proves a perfect complement to her apparent rigidity. Bauer doesn’t have the same opportunity to shine, but makes Stella credibly tough but sympathetic.
Technically proficient without gloss, Hanks Fromm’s cinematography reflects the contrast between sterile city streets and hotel rooms and the near-storybook look of small-town squares and the lushness of the countryside where Barbara and her lover occasionally meet, while the overall production captures the feel of a political environment not long distant and little mourned.
The ending of “Barbara” delivers the message that humanity survives even in the most repressive regimes, though acts of kindness and self-sacrifice. The fact that Petzold and his collaborators can present that idea without resorting to melodramatic claptrap makes their film both insightful and poignant, but not mawkish.