East Germany has an image problem. When you think of East Germany, you think of concrete buildings, concertina wire and massive files kept by the Stasi.
But even East Germany was lovely in the summertime. One could pick basil from the garden for the ratatouille and take bicycle rides through the forest late into the evening. Very deliberately, Barbara, the new film from Christian Petzold, is set in this benign natural world.
But Barbara is no revisionist fantasy. The Stasi's all-seeing malevolence is everywhere as Dr. Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss) arrives in a small, provincial village near the Baltic Sea. We learn that she was once on a prestigious career track in Berlin, but she's being punished with internal exile to a remote pediatric clinic. Her crime? Applying to emigrate to the West, where she plans to join her lover.
Even in this village, spies are everywhere. There's an omnipresent Stasi agent, and her unpleasant landlady is obviously tattling, as well. Worse, though, is the lack of trust Barbara feels at work. The clinic's bearishly handsome head, Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), is another young doctor whose career was also sidetracked. But is he writing reports on her, too?
While political oppression is never far from the film's frame, the themes of Barbara go deeper than the Cold War. By the time the two physicians are discussing a famous 19th-century Turgenev story about the plight of a country doctor, it's clear that this film's themes transcend the particulars of time and place. Is happiness to be found by having one's material needs satisfied? Or might love and service to others be a greater impetus to live?
Fans of 1970s German films will enjoy the production design of Barbara. The period details are convincing, and intentionally or not, the cast members recall characters from 1970s films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (whose work is an acknowledged influence on the film, along with Howard Hawks' To Have and Have Not). The warm color temperatures, reminiscent of Michael Ballhaus' work with Fassbinder, cheer up the fraying, impeccably selected props from the 1980 setting.
The film contains elements of Cold War thrillers, such as the prying eyes, the hiding places, the unannounced visits and the escape to the border. But the real dramatic tension and conflicts in Barbara are emotional and spiritual—they're dramatized in the hearts and minds of the film's embattled and deeply human characters.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Common people."