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March 8, 2013 (San Diego) – Freedom of speech, protection from unreasonable searches and seizures, due process, and freedom of travel are just a smattering of the many rights the United States affords to its people.  

One needn’t be overly familiar with 20th century world history to see how movies like Barbara serve as a reminder of how easy it is for Americans (admittedly myself included) to take for granted these freedoms.  From 1961 to about 1990, the Berlin Wall separated the free, democratic West Germany from the communist, police state East Germany.  East Germans faced police harassment, were spied and informed on to the government, and were for the most part forbidden from leaving the country. 

Barbara (Nina Hoss) is a pediatric surgeon who is forcibly transferred from a prestigious hospital in East Berlin to a small rural hospital as punishment for applying to emigrate to West Germany.  (I should note that I had to look this up on Wikipedia because the dialogue makes little to no mention of this fact; if it did, it was so much in passing I missed it.)  She works under Dr. Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld), who is required by the Stasi (the East German state security service not unlike the Soviet Union's KGB) to inform on her to them.  Barbara plans to escape to West Germany to be with her lover, Jörg (Mark Waschke), but a young ill pregnant woman forced to work in a chain gain, a young man with a brain injury, and Barbara’s growing feelings for Dr. Reiser and diminishing love for Jörg cause her to reconsider her future.

Nina Hoss delivers a complex, mesmerizing performance.  She plays two different characters, both of them as strong and high-caliber as they are polar opposites.  As she arrives for her first day at the hospital, she’s cold towards her new co-workers.  Numerous synonyms for cold - as it pertains to emotion - popped in my head: icy, frigid, and frosty were a few.  It isn’t hard to fault her for feeling this way; the characters mention in passing (in fact, everything, is mentioned in passing) that she was transferred from a hospital called Charité.  But what will likely be lost on a lot of American audiences is that Charité was – and still is – is one of the most prestigious medical schools in Europe.  That her supervisor is tasked by the Stasi to keep tabs on her doesn't help.  Neither does having her place trashed by the Stasi as harassment.  Nor does being subjected to a demeaning and degrading cavity search.  But through it all, Nina Hoss imbues her character with bravery and dignity. 

But around her young patients, she's an entirely different person.  She cares deeply about her patients.  In a stark contrast to her unfeeling nature around the Stasi and the hospital staff, her emotions bloom.  In one scene, she reads Huckleberry Finn to Stella.  She breaks down in tears, unable to continue reading.  It may sound trivial the way I write it, but believe me, it’s huge when viewed side by side against her other personality.  Barbara's change from selfish to selfless is charted slowly, but as it unfolds it grows larger in scope and significance.

The script by director Christian Petzold and Harun Farocki stresses simplicity and essence.  The dialogue is minimal.  When spoken, it's succinct.  Rather than using words, Petzold expresses Barbara’s themes of anguish, bitterness, and longing through multiple non-dialogue scenes that go on for a few minutes at a time and have a methodical, pensive unfolding.  The screenplay goes at its own pace, never rushing itself, but never taking too much time.  While the actual running time is one hour and 45 minutes, the contemplative performances and visual expressions make the perceived running time seem over two hours.  120 minutes or 105 minutes, what’s on the screen is marvelous.

Cinematographer Hans Fromm's color palette looks simple, but when considered within the context of the repressive East German government and Barbara's frigid demeanor, meaning emerges.  Fromm uses warm colors such as orange, red, and light brown in almost every scene with a few notable exceptions.  These colors bring warmth and comfort that belie both Barbara's bitterness and coldness, and the repressive East German's hold on her life.  Ironically, it's mostly the scenes between Barbara and her lover, and their hopes for her to defect that are shot with cool colors.  Jörg represents her freedom, her happiness, and her liberation from the police state.  But these scenes are shot with cool colors, which reflect her increasing suspicion that maybe the grass isn't greener on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

It still blows my mind that for almost thirty years, Germany was separated by an almost impenetrable wall designed by the socialist East Germany to keep its population from defecting.  I wish I could say, "Man, how times have changed."  Unfortunately, that's not true.  In some ways it's even gotten worse.  The Cold War between the United States and the Eastern Bloc may have ended over twenty years ago, but in its place is a new one between the Western powers and the Middle East, not to mention the tensions between the West and North Korea.  And in some of the world’s most repressive governments – Iran and North Korea to name a few – that are even worse than East Germany, the tragedy is that there are Barbaras in those nations that are caught in the crosshairs, have no say, and are forced to suffer for it. 


Barbara is now playing at the Landmark Hillcrest.

An Adopt Films release.  Director:  Christian Petzold.  Screenplay:  Christian Petzold and Harun Farocki.  Original Music:  Stefan Will.  Cinematography:  Hans Fromm.  Cast:  Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehfeld, and Rainer Bock.  Running time:  105 minutes.  Rated PG-13. 

Brian Lafferty welcomes letters at brian@eastcountymagazine.org.  You can also follow him on Twitter:  @BrianLaff.


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