Updated: Mar 22, 2020
By Tom Carson
Barbara showcases many similarities to the rest of Christian Petzold's oeuvre: A tense thriller, with sparse dialogue, and characters under intense psychological strain. This time, however, Petzold turns his attentions to the GDR’s 1980 rural coastal north.
A doctor, exiled from Berlin for submitting an Ausreiseantrag (an application to leave the GDR), is transferred away from Berlin into the countryside. What the authorities don’t know is that moving Barbara close to coastline will give her the opportunity to plot her escape with her Western lover, Jörg.
Barbara’s expression is furtive, her manner is detached, her dissent is palpable. However, Petzold finds a certain warmth in both Barbara, and her informant colleague, Dr Reiser (for whom she gradually falls).
Gone are the stereotypes from cold war thrillers: oppressive Plattenbau architecture, communist flags, huge parades, images of Honecker. Instead, by drawing the action away from Berlin’s centre of power, Petzold is able to paint of picture of what life in the GDR may have been looked like the majority of its citizens, whilst interweaving the threat of the Stasi, spontaneous escape plans, and a number of very human dilemmas.
The effect is one of nuanced and calculated tension in a fraught political climate, with a distinct tension between the public and private sphere. Ice-cold protagonist, Barbara, is played superbly by Nina Hoss, a staple feature of many of Petzold’s previous works (Yella, Jerichow, Phoenix et al), whilst excellent, understated performances are given by Barbara’s supporting cast (Ronald Zehrfeld & Rainer Bock to name but two).
Watch out for a number of subtle cultural references: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the overture to Der Freischütz by Weber, and Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632).
However, it’s Chic’s At last I am Free (1978) that steals the show as the credits start to roll. Is Barbara free? Does she want to be? Can we trust Dr Reiser? Is this really a love story?
That’s for you to decide.