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the heart of cold war survival

katerina sakkas: christian petzold’s barbara


Barbara, © Schramm Film, ZDF, ARTE 2012 Barbara, © Schramm Film, ZDF, ARTE 2012
A SENSE OF WEARINESS PERVADES CHRISTIAN PETZOLD’S COLD WAR DRAMA SET IN 1980S EAST GERMANY. IT’S THE WEARINESS THAT COMES WITH ALWAYS HAVING TO LOOK OVER YOUR SHOULDER, A STATE OF EXISTENCE BARBARA’S PROTAGONIST IS CLEARLY ACCUSTOMED TO FROM THE FILM’S OPENING SCENE.

As punishment for applying to join her boyfriend in the West, Dr Barbara Wolff is sent from Berlin to work in a provincial hospital, where she goes about her constrained life not only under the watchful eye of the security service but, she assumes, of all her colleagues. House and strip searches occur with cruel regularity. Simultaneously character study, thriller and historical portrait, Barbara is a spare, grim film with an intense focus on its central character. There are very few scenes that aren’t seen through its heroine’s eyes.

The film eschews stylistic flourishes. Its cinematography is austere and naturalistic, though not to the extent of drawing attention to this as an aesthetic decision. There are passages where the beauty of the countryside is evident, but there’s little pleasure to be had in it. Barbara’s world is joyless, and we share her outlook. The film’s sound is similarly spare, its infrequent music executed only by the characters themselves. At one point, Barbara plays the piano and escapes into the music she is producing, but it’s a rare instance in a film whose stylistic severity suggests a world from which frivolity and spontaneity have fled.

Barbara, © Schramm Film, ZDF, ARTE 2012 Barbara, © Schramm Film, ZDF, ARTE 2012
The other effect of the film’s lack of stylistic distraction is to focus all attention on character and performance, especially Nina Hoss’ masterful interpretation of the title role. Her performance is one of eloquent restraint. Every physical action, from her slightly stiff carriage to the stifling of normal reactions—the tendency to smile in response to friendliness, for example—gives the impression of a woman under enormous strain. She is ever watchful, ever tensed in anticipation of the next threat to her personal freedom.

Most emotions in the film are internalised in this way, self-policed by those wary of expressing too much in this society where all motives are questionable. Barbara’s colleague Dr André Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld) is an exception, but in this climate even his kindness seems suspect. That’s not to say the film is black and white in its presentation of East versus West. Barbara’s boyfriend, with whom she shares the occasional illicit tryst, mentions callowly that when she makes it to West Germany she won’t have to work, as he’ll earn enough money for both of them. It’s a statement that gives this highly educated woman, so clearly devoted to her work, pause for thought.

Though Barbara is very effective in its overarching narrative of persecution and heroism, it’s in the smaller moments of quiet humanity that it becomes thought provoking. As the rapport deepens between Barbara and André, the question arises, “Can one make a life for oneself under these conditions?” The possibility is left open at that.


Barbara, director Christian Petzold, screenplay Christian Petzold, Harun Farocki, director of photography Hans Fromm, editor Bettina Böhler, music Stefan Will, 2012; distributed in Australia by Madman Entertainment

RealTime issue #114 April-May 2013 pg. 21

© Katerina Sakkas; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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