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by Jay Seaver

"Learn to enjoy small town life - or else."
4 stars

"Barbara" starts at an interesting place; others with its basic template will set things up, give the audience a sense of who its characters are before putting them in a new situation. Writer/director Christian Petzold goes a different way, and it makes for a frequently compelling bit of drama.

As Barbara (Nina Hoss) starts her first day working in a rural East German clinic, her supervisor André (Ronald Zehrfeld) is being told she's a difficult clock-watcher. To be fair, she's got more reason than most to not want to be there; she was until recently in Berlin, but transferred to the country when she applied for an exit visa to leave with her West German boyfriend (Mark Waschke), with regular inspections by Klaus Schütz (Rainer Bock) and his Stasi team to make sure she's not trying to escape. Still, she's a good doctor, and smart enough to wait for her opportunity.

In other hands, Barbara could have wound up a very self-aware black comedy; it's got the structure of a movie where a big-city hotshot learns to stop, smell the roses, and connect with people in a small town, but the Hollywood version of those stories seldom has the secret police barging into the heroine's apartment, slicing open her mattress, and having a matron perform a much closer search. That Petzold instead plays things straight is somewhat interesting and disturbing; the justification that the workers and farmers paid for Barbara's education is, as the characters point out, not wrong. All the familiar motivators in this story - the nice new man who likes her, the patients who need her - become twisted when played against the traditional Western/post-Cold War ideals of individual freedom and the forceful measures used to keep her in place.

To top it off, the movie starts with Barbara about to start her first day at work, and Petzold steadfastly refuses to flash back further than her arrival in town. It marks her as an outsider, and by never showing the audience the place where she fits in, she's a bit less sympathetic than someone they've seen happy, a bit more of a malcontent. The wardrobe, hair, and make-up choices enforce that separation, as well, although not so much as to make the Stasi's visits any less villainous.

Nina Hoss certainly does her part, of course. Barbara is, by necessity, a reserved person, and Hoss delivers the expected iciness and circumspection, but part of what impresses about this performance is how easy she makes it to fill in the blanks even before things have been explained, or how there's a talented, compassionate doctor underneath her resentment (she is pretty terrific at letting the audience see her holding things in). The moments where Barbara gets to let her guard down are impressive, too - a clear but natural shift.

Everyone and every thing around her is done well too, although Hoss is almost always the part of the movie that will grab the audience's attention. Ronald Zehrfeld is pleasant as the head of the clinic, and Jasna Fritzi Bauer certainly gets the point across as a young woman who has tried to cross the border multiple times. The filmmakers create a 1980 East Germany that seems right without being fetishistically detailed. The office politics and community dynamics seem about right.

One may, at times, wish that Petzold was a little more direct; a lot of the good stuff lurks in the background that could take center stage. There is plenty of good material to be found here, especially when Nina Hoss is on-screen, and it's perhaps just sneakily subversive enough to be worth watching closely.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=24240&reviewer=371
originally posted: 02/04/13 22:37:33
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 35th Starz Denver Film Festival For more in the 35th Starz Denver Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/04/13 Bryan Nina Hoss is terrific; lack of publicity cost her any awards recognition. 5 stars
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  21-Dec-2012 (PG-13)
  DVD: 12-Nov-2013

  28-Sep-2012 (12A)


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