★★★★ / ★★★★
For the majority of the beautifully told story of “Barbara,” written by Christian Petzold and Harun Farocki, directed with precision by the former, we become convinced that the titular character would do anything necessary to get out of the oppressive East Germany. She is so unhappy about having been banished in a rural town to work at a clinic as a doctor for simply filing a formal request to leave the east that from the moment we lay eyes on her, it is clear that this woman is angry at the government and the system that deny her freedom—and yet she must compose herself because anybody could be watching. A woman at a bus stop, an old man at a cafe, a stranger in his car—anyone is a potential informant. One wrong move could get her arrested. The core is a drama while the surrounding layers is suspense.
It requires the viewer to pay close attention. Notice the lack of score or soundtrack, for instance. Instead, the music is the wind, how it tends to blow hard and rattles the leaves and branches as Barbara acquires an item from a hiding spot. She is in contact with her beau (Mark Waschke), a man of money and influence, who lives in West Germany. The music, too, is the sound the bicycle makes, Barbara’s main mode of transport; the crashing of the waves, the ruckus a patient makes as she is carried to her bed; the alarming ringing of a telephone; a terrifying knock on the apartment’s front door. Because there is no music to guide us when it comes to how to feel or what to expect, small turn of events provide maximum impact.
Barbara is portrayed by Nina Hoss with intelligence, grace, and intrigue. She is one of those performers who can simply stand in one spot while smoking a cigarette and her relaxed stance conveys plenty. The character is challenging to navigate on paper because she does not say much—which is a requirement because Barbara must be careful from saying or even implying the wrong thought or intention. She suspects everyone around her to be a potential informant—and she is correct in doing so. Particularly painful then, in a longing sort of way, are her interactions with a kind colleague, André (Ronald Zehrfeld), who appears to be genuinely interested in her as both a person and a potential lover. He recognizes her loneliness, but we have a reason to question his actions because the first scene involves André and a Stasi agent watching her through a window.
Barbara’s oppression is not localized to the Stasi dropping by at her apartment unannounced to search through her belongings, strip-searching, and cavity-searching her. Seemingly beautiful scenery can be considered oppressive should one chooses to observe closely. For example, while in broad daylight, notice how the wind blows so harshly as Barbara rides her bicycle to and from her “secret areas.” The gust is so strong that it ends up creating so much noise; not only must she remain control of her secondhand bicycle, it is a struggle for her to detect if anyone is nearby. Every second of action and inaction counts. Another example is when it is night and she is outdoors. Shadows cover her face and body most of the time, almost enveloping her, and it is especially a challenge to make out the faces of those within the vicinity. When Barbara is out and about, there is constant danger. Violence is not always at the forefront.
“Barbara” is not about overt thrills. We are presented detailed information in a clear and exacting ways. We choose how to process the information and based on what we have seen from other stories—from novels, television shows, or other films—combined with the specific characters we are tasked to understand, we extrapolate what must happen and what is likely to happen. One of the ways suspense is amplified is how our common sense might clash against what we hope to happen. I admire this work greatly for not settling on easy catharsis, such as chase scenes or shootouts. Here is a story involving a prison without bars.