When you read as many movie reviews as I do you begin to pick up on certain code words critics will occasionally use, not unlike the way a real estate agent will describe an apartment as “cozy” instead of “so small you have to open a window to use the microwave.” The reviews for Christian Petzold’s Barbara, for example, will no doubt refer to its “deliberate pacing” or its “slow-burning tension”. They will praise the admirable “subtlety” of the storytelling. All of these descriptors are accurate, no question, but they also dance around a simple blunt truth, which is that for long stretches Barbara is more than a bit boring.
Critics are forbidden to come right out and say this. First, because it makes the writer sound like he or she has zero attention span and wishes the film had more car chases and velociraptor attacks, and second, because the word is so damning it essentially negates the rest of the review. Might as well post the words DON’T SEE THIS in “Man Walks On Moon” sized letters if you are going to bring the word boring into the discussion.
In point of fact, Barbara is quite a good film...
I will gladly watch a film that leans on the brakes a little too hard over one that is pumps up the melodrama out of fear our attention will drift. Barbara doesn’t contain a single bad scene, or a moment when the director’s control of the material is less than assured. It is simply that Petzold keeps the drama on such a low simmer that at times you feel yourself silently urging him to crank it up a notch.
Set in East Germany 1980, Barbara is the story of a Berlin doctor, played by Nina Hoss, exiled to a small rural hospital as punishment for seeking an exit visa out of the country. Her subversive behavior has earned her constant government surveillance, including frequent home inspections complete with full body search. At work her superior big-city attitude wins her few friends, and it is more than likely her coworkers are reporting her every move to the government. Despite her exposed position Barbara doesn’t give up plans of escape to the West.
It’s understandable that Petzold didn’t feel the need to crank up the energy since his lead actress is so brilliant at projecting a world of conflict underneath her unfailingly still façade. Barbara appears to form a bond with the hospital’s kind-hearted head doctor (Ronald Zehrlfeld) but right up until the end Hoss doesn’t tips her hand as to whether these feelings are genuine or simply good strategy for staying off the radar of people who wish her harm.
Barbara can’t help but bring to mind Germany’s last film to triumph at the Oscars, The Lives of Others. Like that film Barbara is a tense Cold War drama that requires the audience to intuit the thoughts of its remote protagonist. But where that film tightened the screws of its plot mercilessly, Barbara sets the stage and then lets Nina Hoss’s performance do the bulk of the heavy lifting. At least, that is, until the film’s closing scenes which reward the viewer’s patience and concentration with a payoff of genuine emotional power. For that, for Hoss, and for Petzold’s sure directorial hand, Barbara is a worthy submission for Germany, and well worth 105 minutes of your time, even if it will try your patience at times. B