Film review: shadows on the wall

Yvonne Teh

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 May, 2013, 11:21pm

Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld
Director: Christian Petzold
Category: IIA (German)


It's nearly 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down and German reunification was achieved. But stories, some of them very chilling, continue to be told about the kind of uneasy lives that some people led in then German Democratic Republic.

The eponymous protagonist of Christian Petzold's Barbara is an east Berlin doctor banished to a provincial backwater by the authorities for having had the temerity to apply for an exit visa to venture to the other side of the Iron Curtain.

First incarcerated, and then effectively sent into internal exile, Dr Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss) is assigned work in a spartan hospital and to live in a soulless apartment guaranteed to lower most people's morale.

And as is made patently clear in the early scenes of this involving psychological drama-cum-character study set in the 1980s, the film's heroine is very aware that she remains under constant surveillance by the East German secret police (Stasi).

The consequences of being in the state's bad books are starkly spelled out, and the scenes are often infused with an air of oppression and tension. Yet Barbara continues to resist in small but significant ways.

She also manages to maintain a relationship with her West German lover (Mark Waschke), who keeps the good doctor supplied with her favourite Western cigarettes as well as hatches a plan to speed her out of East Germany via neighbouring Denmark.

Considering the experiences she's had, it's small wonder that Barbara is generally distrustful of the people around her - including her younger supervisor at the hospital, Dr Andre Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld). But she recognises a kindred spirit in Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), a teen inmate of what is euphemistically described as a work camp (Barbara says it is actually an extermination camp), and the two females form a strong bond.

Barbara earns the respect of her fellow medicos after she correctly diagnoses Stella with meningitis rather than faking illness, as others had assumed. Andre and Barbara further connect over their genuine care for another patient admitted to the hospital.

Still, when he looks to gain her confidence by telling her how he came to be working at the hospital himself, she reacts to his story with scepticism and suspicion, rather than compassion or empathy.

It is genuinely sad to see how, in Barbara's world, many people were forced to lead lives full of secrets and lies in order to retain a sense of humanity.

At the same time, after seeing what they had to live with, there also is a sense of positive wonder that these individuals managed to hold on to a sense of morality and responsibility, and could still be capable of some astonishingly selfless actions.

In the title role of Barbara, Hoss is amazing at conveying both wariness and weariness, using her body as well as her face. And in another kind of film, Ronald Zehrfeld would have been a likeable romantic lead.

But director Petzold (who also shares writing credits with Harun Farocki) has crafted a work where love is not a major priority in people's lives, especially not compared to survival and escape.


Barbara opens on May 9