In Postwar, which I happen to be reading, Tony Judt describes life in late eighties Czechoslovakia as a dull affair in which young people smoke and drink as their rivers get poisoned and their trees cut down and factories spew sulfurous smokes: “But in return for avoiding confrontation with the regime and paying lip service to its turgid rhetoric, people were left to their own devices.” The citizens — prisoners is closer — of East Germany lacked this geographic and cultural good fortune, thanks to the Stasi. For most film audiences, 2006’s The Lives of Others was their first acquaintance with the grim grayness of East German life before the spasms of 1989. Barbara, Germany’s 2012 nominee for Best Foreign Film, isn’t interested in documenting this hustle so much as the incursions into privacy that occur often enough for citizens never to take them for granted, which is the point of a state police force like the Stasi. Barbara also doesn’t sink into the earlier film’s pieties about the redemptive powesr of Rilke (young West Germans no doubt winced at the idea of the redemptive power of Rilke).
Nina Hoss plays the title character, a doctor reassigned to a village hospital in 1980 for the temerity of asking for an exit visa. To treat Barbara’s alleged crime against the state as a cause for doubt is the master stroke of Christian Petzold’s film; she could have had audience sympathy from the start, but thanks to Hoss’s dark-lidded, impassive rendering she’s like Mary Astor asking to get set up in The Maltese Falcon. This is a reticent women, full of secrets, an ideal target for surveillance as the first scene shows: boss André (Ronald Zehrfeld, a ringer for Russell Crowe) and Stasi lieutenant Schütz (Rainer Bock) peep through binoculars and curse her damn opacity. Intending to report her movements to the Stasi, André instead is impressed by Barbara’s bedside manner with a runaway named Stella, whose life she saves after a misdiagnosis. Fortunately for the movie’s aesthetics reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in a no doubt bowdlerized edition does not redeem Stella, nor does it open heretofore shut windows in Barbara’s soul; insofar as they open at all, the credit goes to her lover Jørg, whom she meets for trysts at Interhotels. The Stasi wear her down with unannounced visits and cavity searches (the grim agent menacingly snaps a rubber glove).
Viewers familiar with Petzold’s movies can spot Barbara‘s flaw: scenes so finely calibrated to dialogue that the film itself can’t stand apart and come to a conclusion about itself yet Barbara’s deeds, including one with far-reaching consequences at the end, aren’t a surprise either because Petzold has her figured out from the opening frames; the result is a kind of naturalism recognizable from a Dardennes film but without the schema. Negotiating these tergiversations is Nina Hoss, whose kohl-rimmed eyes project the certainty that a lifetime of terror is not a bad dream from which she’ll awaken, even if she escapes to the West.