If Christian Petzold’s languidly paced, intoxicating character study Barbara were an American film, an appropriate marketing campaign may have consisted of posters splattered on street corners that asked “Who is Barbara Wolff?” Then again, the possibility of Barbara maintaining its metaphysical aura as an American film would be slim.
Filmmakers like Petzold, Angela Schanelec, and a coterie of others are the forerunners of Berliner Schule, or the Berlin School of filmmaking, an aesthetically motivated paradigm within German cinema that utilizes realism as a mechanism to inspire debate on German life and history. Like the more canonized participants of the Nouvelle Vague, or the antecedent German movement, the New German Cinema of Herzog and Fassbinder, these contemporary German filmmakers also come together on the page, founding Revolver, a niche magazine discussing the tenets of the movement.
Contextualizing Barbara within this thematic and aesthetic lineage augments an appreciation for the film that was greeted with universal acclaim for Petzold and star Nina Hoss upon release in 2012.
The ontological basis of the film is twofold: It situates a laconic woman in a politically charged era, East Germany circa 1980, to spin a deceptively simplistic tale about fascist regimes and gender politics. Shrouded in mystery, Barbara unravels truths through her forced exile, associatively uprooting issues through each awkward interaction and refused clarification.
She is introduced first through the perceptions of men: As she exits a bus, two men observe from a window, a spatially privileged vantage, begrudgingly noting her unwelcoming, unfeminine countenance; “If she were a six year old you’d say she were sulky.” This infantilizing remark establishes the inequitable power dynamic, with one of the men later revealed to be a Stasi officer responsible for Barbara’s compliance.
She is a doctor from Berlin, an educated city woman transferred to a rural hospital when she applied for exit papers to move to a more hospitable West Germany. This uncomfortable mix of urban/backwoods population is common in horror films as a strategy to produce dread or anxiety. Begrudgingly, she commingles with her fellow doctors, notably Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), though not at first.
Like an adolescent enrolled in a new school mid-year, Barbara has her guard up, quietly going about her business and almost exclusively rejecting any opportunities to socialize. She eats alone at a table in the cafeteria and rides her bike home from work even after Andre offers a ride home in his car. When she learns that he, too, has been exiled as a result of a work mishap, she becomes more welcoming, and the two quietly segue into an understanding based on similar histories even though it’s part of his job to report on Barbara’s “progress” to the local authorities.
She lives to avoid suspicion, careful not to instigate more of the degrading random visits and cavity searches from local authorities that try to suppress her will. All the while she plots an elaborate overnight escape plan. Petzold carefully positions Barbara as a mysterious object, a puzzle to be solved, a symbolic gesture placed within a loaded environment. Her nervous glances are often countered with subtle surveillance from the men around her, even Andre, a friend.
Critic Melissa Anderson rightly positions the film as a descendant of the Hollywood “woman’s picture”, a sub-genre of films featuring female protagonists targeted specifically for female audiences. Directors such as Ophüls, Sirk, Rossellini, and Hitchcock are notable contributors, with their films Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Magnificent Obsession (1954), Fear (1954), and Rebecca (1940), respectively, often placing their leading ladies in unstable, anxious environments, ones from which they need to escape. Some New German Cinema famously followed in this tradition, notably Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, a loose remake of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows.
Until this point, Barbara’s aloofness perfectly complements the strained environment around her, creating an atmosphere of quiet intrigue. Her maternal instinct unexpectedly avails itself to an ailing girl from a nearby work camp, bringing about a narrative shift that no longer hinges upon figuring out who Barbara is but rather what will happen to her. The girl, Stella, keeps running away from a harmful place, an experience with which Barbara can personally empathize. As Barbara finalizes her escape plan, her emotional attachment to Stella presents a rough, but not unsolvable, problem.
Nina Hoss plays Barbara just right, creating a sympathetic character with precious few opportunities to do so. Barbara is the product of her environment rather than the cause of it, and this becomes increasingly apparent through minimal interactions and dialogue. Petzold’s ability to craft suspense through character-driven circumstance is second to none. In this, their fifth collaboration, the two create a hypnotic film that sneaks up on the viewer, the sort of film that Paul Schrader would deem “transcendental”, in a similar vein to Dreyer or Ozu.
Unsuspecting engagement with the material occurs in the interim, which renders the viewer particularly susceptible to the film’s final moments of emotional catharsis. In the end, the mystery surrounding Barbara has been solved: She’s a strong woman who sacrifices everything for freedom.
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