The frigid atmosphere of East Germany wafts through every scene of “Barbara,” Germany’s official entry into the foreign-language Oscar category. The movie’s depiction of a Communist state is controlled and anxious.
Although less concerned with surveillance and the constant threat of exposure or betrayal than “The Lives of Others” (a German Oscar-winner of recent vintage), “Barbara” nevertheless keeps you aware of an underlying sense of unease.
The title character is a doctor (played by Nina Hoss) who’s been — reluctantly, we surmise — posted to a hospital in the countryside. She’s doing her best not to be friendly to her fellow workers. Especially frustrated is her bearish colleague (Ronald Zehrfeld), who is alternately curious about and annoyed by her.
She has secrets, of course. But we wouldn’t necessarily know this was a movie set during the Cold War if it weren’t for the police who periodically show up at her tiny apartment and ransack the place.
While we are wondering about that, a couple of cases arrive at the hospital, both involving self-destructive teenagers. How they will be folded into Barbara’s mysterious story is part of the pleasure of trying to figure out this slow-burning tale.
Director Christian Petzold is best known stateside for “Yella” and “Jerichow,” although he isn’t as lauded here as he is in Europe. This film could change that — despite its stark style, the intrigue of life behind the Iron Curtain gives it some real accessibility.
Petzold’s calm approach increases our instinct to guess at what might be authentic in Barbara’s interactions with others. Can anybody be trusted? Do the stray appearances by peripheral characters have special meaning, are they planned, are or they simply coincidence?
The movie’s not going to tip its hand, and like Barbara, it doesn’t wear its emotions, or its intentions, on its sleeve. (You realize as the film goes along that this may be the only survival technique available to someone living in East Germany in 1980.) Yet this even-handed style pays off handsomely in the climactic sequence, which is as quiet as the rest of the movie, but delivers an emotional effect all the more powerful because it sneaks up on you.
I doubt it will win the Oscar — they usually give those to foreign films that are more eager to entertain. But “Barbara” is a very worthy representative of Germany’s continual re-assessment of the past.
“Barbara” (3 stars)
A doctor in 1980 East Germany puts up with official suspicion and some delicate hospital cases. This movie’s style is appropriately cool and controlled — we never know who we can trust, nor even what the doctor’s own motivations might be. It’s Germany’s submission in the foreign-language Oscar category. In German, with English subtitles.
Rated: PG-13 for subject matter.