Petzold keeps the camera distanced from the characters, and his passive approach makes viewers feel like they’re merely observing events unfolding naturally.
In 1980s East Germany, Barbara (Nina Hoss) is showing up to her first day of work at her new job. After applying to leave the country, the police have forced Barbara to move from her job as a doctor in East Berlin to the hospital in a small provincial town. The constant surveillance and lack of privacy is immediately established as all of this information is explained by the local Stasi officer (Rainer Block) watching her from afar. He’s talking to André (Ronald Zehrfield), the head doctor at the hospital and Barbara’s new boss.
Barbara is cold and distant with her new co-workers, who mostly shrug off her behaviour as elitist (“That’s Berlin” one of the doctors says). André clearly respects Barbara as a colleague and keeps offering to help her adjust with the re-location. Barbara has no intentions of making friends any time soon since she’s secretly planning an escape with her wealthy boyfriend who lives in the West. As Barbara’s chance to escape gets closer with every day, her situation becomes more complicated. With the Stasi constantly keeping watch on her, Barbara’s work and underlying attraction to André throw her into a moral conflict that she has no idea how to get out of.
Director/co-writer Christian Petzold is able to communicate the title character’s internal conflicts while keeping an objective perspective the entire time is remarkable. Shot mostly in long or medium static shots, Barbara is deceptively simplistic. Petzold keeps the camera distanced from the characters, and his passive approach makes viewers feel like they’re merely observing events unfolding naturally. This tactic makes each scene have an unpredictable quality to it that only amplifies the film’s tension. When Barbara hears a knock at the door or a car driving by outside her apartment, we’re just as suspicious as she.
Nina Hoss, now collaborating with Petzold for the 5th time, does an incredible job with her role. With Petzold laying out all of the morally conflicting circumstances, Hoss, simultaneously showing strength, grace and insecurity, perfectly expresses Barbara’s inner turmoil. Her paranoia and defenses gradually thaw away as her time with André grows, all of which are portrayed with a level of restraint that makes Barbara’s development feel like a natural progression. With Hoss providing a strong moral center and Petzold sustaining a quietly intense atmosphere, Barbara makes for a surprisingly thrilling character study. The directorial power of Barbara constantly shines through, helping certify Christian Petzold as one of Germany’s best directors working today.