Film Review – Barbara

Film Review – Barbara

Barbara Movie PosterBarbara wants to be an insight into making decisions under extreme circumstances, but doesn’t give real weight to those decisions. The title character (Nina Hoss) is a doctor in East Germany who has to work in the countryside due to some trouble with the secret police. Her supervisor is André (Ronald Zehrfeld), a kindly man who, while also forced to work out in the country and keep an eye on Barbara for the police, seems to like being of use in the middle of nowhere and is also happy to have someone of Barbara’s skills working with himand is drawn to her, as well.

Barbara keeps to herself. Her experience with the secret police has made her wary of everyone, and rightfully so. The police still check in on her, and André is writing reports on her, because he has to. Meanwhile, he is still trying to get to know her and make her feel like she can do some good. While she does actually start helping her patients, especially a local girl, Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), who is forced to work in a workhouse, Barbara is planning to run off with her West German lover Jörg and escape the totalitarian state.

Barbara is an interesting charactervery smart, a good doctor, and she does want to help, but she is also deeply unhappy. She is emotionally cold to anyone who could even remotely be against her; we see only a few times that she can let her guard down, but usually she is just trying to keep herself together or plotting to get away. This inner worry and cynicism is on her face, and we feel the desperation in her. Her desire for freedom working against her desire to be of some use to people stuck in this society gives her complexity that makes her worth watching.

With all her silence and inner hurt, Barbara is a fully realized character, while André is unfinished. He is drawn to Barbara, yet why he is makes little sense, beyond the fact that Barbara needs a nice character in East Germany to be telling her things she can do if she stays in the country. He seems to want her, but we are never given the time to make it feel authentic. His desires and motivations are never given the weight that Barbara’s are, and as such, when she reacts around him, it comes off as unbelievable.

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This becomes especially true when she is reconciling her feelings with André versus those for her lover Jörgwhich make no sense. Her scenes with Jörg are the few moments of unguarded happiness she seems to have, and we see nothing to believe he is anything but sincere in his desires. The only problem is distance, and that we have little time with him as a character. If there are other issues, they are never shown. With André there is simply not enough there to make the leap that she would be even looking for someone else, and it actively hurts the character’s motivations to throw this in as a possibility.

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Even taking André out of the equation of what Barbara will do when the options are presented to her, the end results leave little impact. Part of the problem is that the film moves at a leisurely pace, keeping much of what is going on secret and letting events play out. This both helps and hurts; it allows us to slowly digest what is happening, yet at other times it just feels too long. The film also sets up many events that feel like plot points instead of natural events. Therefore it becomes obvious when it presents its moral issues; the filmmakers have stacked things in such a way that we know what the results will be too soon, lessening the whole.

The big issue with this film is that for every moment of insight or depth, there is something that equally takes away from that insight. We have strong acting from Nina Hoss, but then weaker acting around her. An odd pacing feels like we are building to something, but turns long and underwhelming. Director Christian Petzold wants to get into moral quandaries in the heart of one of the worst places in the world, but the message becomes too muddled by throwing in too many obvious options that reduce the real moral quandary.

Final Grade: C+

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