The latest film from German director Christian Petzold, Barbara, has received a number of awards, including a nomination as Germany’s entry for the Foreign Language Film Oscar. Set in East Germany in 1980, the story revolves around Barbara Wolff, played by Petzold’s ‘muse’ Nina Hoss. Wolff is a paediatrician who is sent to a provincial hospital somewhere in the flat, windswept lands along the Baltic coast, as punishment for applying to leave the country in order to join her Western boyfriend. His occasional presence is marked by the appearance of his Mercedes and secret tristes with Wolff in various Interhotels. However, the main focus of the film is on the developing relationship between Barbara and fellow doctor André. The pair begin to bond whilst dealing with a variety of medical cases, all of which are negatively marked by the worst aspects of the East German regime, from shortages of medical equipment to the physical and psychological damage facing young people who fail to conform to the state’s authoritarian rules and regulations.
The inevitable comparison for Barbara is with The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, 2006), which impressed with its interweaving of human drama and political suspense as it traced the complex experiences of living in the East German surveillance state, both for those who were its victims and for those who were complicit in its systems of control. Perhaps due to its provincial setting, Barbara lacks some of this complexity but it makes up for this in its evocation of the impact of state surveillance on inter-personal relationships and in the ubiquitous power of the state. The early 1980s in the GDR are neatly evoked in the period features, from old buses to the interior of the hospital, from Barbara’s sparely decorated flat, allocated to her by the authorities, to André’s home. In such contexts, Barbara’s access to Western cigarettes or her red-leather vanity case become markers of her difference, of her subversion even, noted as being out of place by André and others.
The significance of these mundane markers highlights the pervasive reach of the state into everyday life. This is amplified by random acts indicating the presence of the state security service, for example, when Barbara’s bicycle is damaged, and also by the film’s particular soundscape. The silence of Barbara’s life and the care with which speech and sound is monitored – and self-monitored – lends to the building tensions of the film. From the outset, the audience knows, as Barbara does too, that she is being watched by a local Stasi officer. André knows too. Conversations are cautious. This inability to be open, or to be certain about other people, produces a strangely passionless relationship between Barbara and André, with the former maintaining vigilance. The duplicitous nature of speech, the need to say something but not to give anything away, is reflected in the sparseness of the dialogue. Throughout the film, sounds and silences – such as the neatly observed moments when the radio masks discussions or where playing the piano can offer a fleeting escape from the silence of surveillance – reinforce this sense of tension and caution.
As Barbara and André’s work draws them closer together, we are unsure of the precise relation between them, of his relation to the security services, and of Barbara’s future in this backwater of the East German state, until the final tense scenes of the film. The performance by Hoss is restrained and all the more convincing for it, as the film interweaves Wolff’s developing relationship with her patients, particularly the teenage Stella, the increasingly invasive encounters she has with the Stasi, and the uncertain relations with André. The sparse aesthetics of the film reinforce the atmosphere of suspicion and combine with the strong central performance to deliver an atmospheric and closely observed portrait of a life under surveillance.