Barbara: East German slow burn

Never mind the Oscars, check out this drama set in East Germany back in the day.


In my mind, films about communist Germany that have made their way across the Atlantic have tended to play on us foreigners’ imaginations, whether using buffoonish humour (Goodbye Lenin) or gripping suspense (The Lives of Others).

It is a pleasure, therefore, to be treated to the slow burn of Christian Petzold’s Barbara, with its immaculate pacing and focus on impressions, rather than plot.

In the East Germany of 1980, Barbara (Nina Hoss), a doctor, has been banished from Berlin and sent to work in a hospital in the provinces as punishment for political subversion and applying to leave to the West. As she continues to plot escape with her lover, the pastoral setting of her new home clashes with the welcome she receives from the Stasi (government police), who immediately regard her with suspicion and subject her to humiliating routine searches of her apartment and her person. For their sheer ordinariness, these scenes conjure a spine-tingling discomfort, eliciting a creeping ominous feeling that sets the tone for the film, without ever crossing the line into overwrought intrigue.

The sense of foreboding deepens when Barbara also captures the interest of handsome and sensitive fellow doctor André (Ronald Zehrfeld), whose friendly overtures are accepted cautiously by our heroine, and in Petzold’s expert hands, by us as well. Does he mean her well? Is he another Stasi spy? We are easily lulled into captivation by the troubling tranquility and the beauty of small moments Petzold creates in this brilliant film. ■

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