[Review] – Barbara

4 Jan


Title: Barbara
Year: 2012
Director: Christian Petzold
Writer: Christian Petzold
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Rainer Bock, Mark Waschke
MPAA Rating: PG-13, some sexual material, thematic elements and smoking
Runtime: 105 min
IMDb Rating: 7.2
Rotten Tomatoes: 95%
Metacritic: 88

I know it’s already 2013, but I still have about a dozen 2012 releases to catch up on before I finalize that yearly ranking and get cracking on my 2012 Best Of lists. One of those films is Christian Petzold‘s Barbara, which won him Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival and was selected as Germany’s submission to the Best Foreign Language Oscar race (it didn’t make the final shortlist for the award nominations, though), and it’s truly a very, very good film.

It stars Nina Hoss (in her fourth collaboration with Mr. Petzold) as the titular character, a Berlin physician during the Cold War who’s banished to an East Germany hospital as punishment for filing an exit visa. As her lover Jörg, who’s in West Germany, plots her escape, we see Barbara struggling through her time in East Germany, caring for a patient who escaped from a youth detention centre and falling for the chief physician at her new place of employ even if he appears to be a spy working against her.

Barbara is honestly, through and through, a film that’s just utterly moving and wholly compelling, both tough and caring in its portrayal of Cold War paranoia with a character who knows that the line between overly careful and utterly careless is a damn thin one in the world she’s now in. I love movies like this one that take on such an important moment in a nation’s history and exploit them in such thoughtful ways, because Barbara is always that, it’s smart and meditative, with a central character trying her best to wall herself off from the new reality that’s thrust upon her, constantly torn between her survival instincts and her desire for a better life.

The only two other films of Mr. Petzold I’ve seen also star Ms. Hoss, one is Jerichow and the other Yella, two good films (the latter moreso than the former) though not quite as great as Barbara is. The thing is, the fact that they’ve worked together in the past (and done so to such nifty results) is absolutely important to this film because it’s their working relationship that really dictates whether this works or not. And that relationship is one that by now is so finely tuned that it allows Barbara to display every bit of emotion it has in it.

I loved how that worked here because this is the kind of film that really mostly consists of just one character, and Ms. Hoss is all alone in most of the frames. That she has the trust in her director, and that it’s a mutual thing, is brilliant; Mr. Petzold knows to simply allow Ms. Hoss to let Barbara’s humanity come through, and she knows to trust him with getting those tiny fleeting moments of dire emotion on camera. Because Barbara is really a film about fleeting moments and (sometimes nearly imperceptible) stings of feeling.

Mr. Petzold really is one of the very best German directors working nowadays and Barbara is just a confirmation of it. He makes smart movies that even though are dense never really feel dense because of how impeccably crafted they are, the tension felt through this movie, and how it marries the elements of both the personal plight of this character as well as the political overtones, are simply the work of a man who knows his craft. Not to mention that the visuals of his work are always so damn stunning.

Another thing I quite like about his work is how he refuses to follow clichés. Don’t get me wrong, he actually treads upon familiar ground a lot here, and the feeling of paranoia that seeps through this whole thing is Hitcockian to the bone, but in a way he takes those familiar cues and makes them all his own. Take the ending for example, it’s pure melodrama taken right out of the pages of Hollywood classics that came way before this one, but Mr. Petzold doesn’t make it seem melodramatic at all, there’s no pompous dialogue or intense music to tell you what to feel, it’s just a moment that exists, beautifully shot and acted, and it works magnificently.

It’s a pity that this movie didn’t make the Oscar shortlist, even if that’s an award that should go to the masterpiece that was Amour, but it’s a pity because that category helps shine a light on movies that, because they’re in another language, most general audiences many times wouldn’t give a chance to. Barbara deserves to be seen, if only to see a director and an actress just taking their time in portraying this lonely woman and showing us, ever so gradually, just what it is that makes her tick.

Even if you don’t think this movie is for you, I urge you to give it a chance. Sure, it’s a film that’s obviously very much dictated by the political factors in play, and motifs and metaphors are thus a part of the game this one plays, but if you take out the political stuff you could easily see this is a hospital romantic drama, as a German movie version of E.R. or Grey’s Anatomy, and most importantly it’s simply a film about rebellion. Yes, the circumstances are very much marked and a huge part of this movie, but they’re not the only thing in play.

Grade: A-


One Response to “[Review] – Barbara”

  1. colincarman January 4, 2013 at 6:29 pm #

    Looks performance-driven; want to see this!

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