"Nobody can be happy here."
So says Barbara, a doctor, referring to life in East Germany in 1980. She's particularly bitter; in a disciplinary action, she's been transferred from a prestigious hospital in East Berlin to a small rural clinic. What unfolds after her move is the subject of Barbara, a meditative, character-driven thriller from Christian Petzold.
Barbara (Nina Hoss) keeps to herself, making no friends and rejecting the friendly overtures of her boss, Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld). Yet she is caring with the patients, particularly Stella, a troubled teen-age girl, injured while escaping a labor camp. And she is warm and playful during her clandestine meetings with her Danish lover, who is helping her plot a defection.
But in this political environment, personal contact is subject to paranoia. Anxiety and distrust is as pervasive and disruptive as the constant strong wind. Some of it is forefronted, such as when the Stasi arrive to search Barbara's house and person, but much of it is just an inability to know whom to trust. Are Andre's personal enquiries about Barbara because he cares, or has he been tasked with keeping tabs on her? Even the motivations of patients are questioned. And in this murky world, what right does Barbara have to expect truth from others when she is engaged in subterfuge?
Petzold's film is a slow-burner, in which information is judiciously revealed. (Among the film's sly hints, Barbara chooses to read the classic novel of rebellion and escape, Huckleberry Finn, to the similarly inclined Stella.) Barbara isn't initially a likable character until we learn how her cold, aloof nature is a necessary defense mechanism. Likewise, circumstances cause Barbara to re-evaluate those around her, and to weigh the protection of her life against the lives of others.
The background issues are fraught, but the execution here is low-key, even pleasant. Despite the grim, gray concrete we associate with life in the Eastern Bloc, these events take place over a sunny summer in a charming pastoral place. The actors deliver understated performances, and Hoss has one of those great faces that can be impassive while simultaneously conveying submerged emotions.
One aspect of the final reel might strike some viewers as too pat, a bit of audience-pleasing after an hour-and-a-half of free-floating anxiety. But all is not lost for those for those who favor subtler pleasures, as Barbara ends on an enigmatic note better suited to its cautious journey.