The winner of the Silver Bear for best direction at the 2102 Venice Film Festival and Germany’s entrant for the best foreign language film Oscar this year, Christian Petzold’s Barbara starts an exclusive run at the Tiff Bell Lightbox in Toronto and select theaters across Canada on Friday Dec 28. The story of a disgraced nurse in early 1980’s East Germany features another very strong performance from the emerging powerhouse that is Nina Hoss. A relative unknown to the majority of North American audiences, Petzold’s muse (she has starred in 5 of his productions) may finally breakthrough with this strong and intimate portrayal of a woman forced to make a life altering decision and decide between following her head or her heart.
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Jasna Fritzi Bauer, Mark Waschke and Rainer Bock
Written and Directed by Christian Petzold
After being removed from a prestigious medical post in East Berlin and reassigned to an underfunded rural hospital, her tacit punishment for requesting an exit visa from the GDR, Barbara (Hoss) isolates herself from everyone. She is particularly wary of her new colleague, chief physician Andre (Zehrfeld), whom she suspects is keeping tabs on her at the behest of the local Stasi officer Schütz (Bock). Barbara seeks solace in dangerous trysts with her West German lover Jörg (Waschke), who is working to obtain Barbara’s escape across the border. Barbara allows her icy mask to slip when she meets a young pregnant woman, Stella (Fritzi Bauer), who has contracted meningitis after escaping from a detention center for wayward youth. As Barbara and Andre nurse Stella back to health, they begin to bond over their shared passion for medicine. When Jörg returns to offer her a sure-fire escape from the country, Barbara must make a difficult decision between her desire for freedom and her growing attraction to a man who may be waiting to betray her.
Barbara is a tour de force for Hoss. The film is a character study of this besmirched woman who is desperately trying to escape while maintaining the dignity and stature a physician of her experience, all while trying to ignore her natural tendencies to help and care for someone who desperate needs it. Hoss is fantastic here; her statuesque and icy external demeanor is stripped away piece by piece, especially by the constant demoralizing home inspections she is put through. Her performance is one of unrequited fury as you can see the pain and rage beneath the surface of her eyes, until she is forced to care again in the form of Stella. The entire performance in insular and we truly know nothing about Barbara, why she wants to leave so desperately, whether she is simply using Jörg to escape or if she has real feelings for him and whether she is playing Andre to help her endgame. The rest of the performances are supporting here, but all are well done. Zehrfeld’s Andre is fascinated with Barbara from the start, Fritzi Bauer’s Stella is the emotional heart of the film and Rainer Bock is fantastic as the Stasi officer determined to undermine and uncover Barbara’s guilt throughout.
Petzold`s direction is sure-handed and strong. The camera gives us an unflinching vision of our lead, good and bad. The setting is of an early 1980`s East Germany that is still very much behind the wall, cut off from most of the rest of the world where older methods of transport, older cars, bikes and trains, are common place and buildings are much simpler in design. The stripped back nature of the surroundings emulates the front Barbara has put upon herself, but in both cases there is much more going on behind the façade. Clearly designed for Hoss from the beginning, Petzold has delivered a script tailor made for his muse to excel at that remains intelligent and unyielding to the character.
Smart, engaging and unnerving Barbara is a fascinating portrait of a woman faced with a life altering decision under the deadliest of circumstances. Nina Hoss proves that she deserves a place in the conversation of the finest female actresses working today and continues to shine working with Petzold.
4 out of 5.
For more information on showtimes in Toronto, check out the TIFF online schedule.
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