Cast includes: Nina Hoss (A Woman in Berlin), Ronald Zehrfeld (The Red Cockatoo)
Director: Christian Petzold (Yella)
Genre: Drama | Suspense (105 minutes) German with subtitles
“Is that her?” It’s odd that she sits outside at the bus stop so she won’t arrive a second too early. The year is 1980; the place is East Germany. Barbara is the new doctor at the clinic. André, the other doctor, introduces her to the staff. But at lunch, Barbara walks right past them to eat lunch alone. André’s not sure whether to offer Barbara a ride home after work, but surprisingly she does accept. She notices that he doesn’t need to ask where she lives. “Of course you know where I live. They’ve already spoken to you about me.” André knows Barbara was a doctor in Berlin and that she’s been banished to the provinces because she applied for a visa to leave East Germany. The next morning Stella is brought to the clinic… kicking and screaming. The police are sure she’s not really sick… just faking it so she won’t have to go back to her work detail. But Barbara correctly diagnoses meningitis, saving Stella’s life.
We’re not sure what’s going on… but on her day off, Barbara has a clandestine meeting to receive an envelope of cash, which she leaves under a large rock next to the big wooden cross. Soon there’s a knock on the door… the police. “So, you had a little outing?” (They seem to know everything she does.) The search of Barbara’s apartment is aggressive and intrusive… including a cavity search. She’s virtually numb when it’s over, so she’s not pleased when André shows up at her door. “The serum has arrived, but Stella refuses treatment unless you do it.” André doesn’t really have to ask Barbara what happened… it’s obvious when he sees the state of her apartment. As it turns out, André made the serum himself in his lab. When they talk, Barbara finds she’s touched by his dedication. But she’s cautious about forming friendships. And before long, we learn that Barbara has a lover from the West and is planning an escape.
Not a lot happens in the first half of this film, yet the tension is nerve jangling. Everyday life in East Germany in the 80s was so different from today that it takes us a while to understand the nuances and how fear permeates everything. Relationships are difficult because you never know whom to trust and who will turn you in. Even if you’ve done nothing wrong, you could be chosen for extra scrutiny or disciplinary actions. Little by little, Barbara discovers surprising things about the others… and about her own priorities. As a physician, it’s her job to help people, but Barbara’s dedication to her patients goes beyond just duty. The filmmakers approached the story with uncommon subtly. Huge plot developments are often conveyed with just a look. For that reason, this one may not appeal to those who prefer movies with a more mainstream narrative style. But that said, Barbara is a very suspenseful film with an unrelenting sinister undertone. At one point, they have a patient who appears to be doing well, but André isn’t convinced. His assessment of the patient could well be the assessment for the film… “There’s something wrong. But I’m not sure what it is.”
4 popped kernels
When a young doctor applies for a visa, the East German government exiles her to the provinces and her every move is investigated
Distribution: Art house
Tempo: In no hurry
Visual Style: Unvarnished realism
Character Development: Intense
Language: True to life