Set against the backdrop of Eastern Germany at the height of the Cold War in the early 1980s, Christian Petzold’s Barbara weaves a sparse and intelligently paced look at someone learning to love something more than they love their own sense of comfort and protection. Epiphanies in real life don’t happen overnight, and Petzold’s selfish protagonist grows more and more conflicted by her own choices and by the welfare of those around her after once thinking her own mind had been made up.
Forced out of her job in a Berlin hospital on the Soviet run side the great wall for voicing her to defect to the other side and be with her lover on the sly, our titular character (Nina Hoss), one would hesitate to use the word heroine, gets transferred to a rural community near far from her previously cushy job as a paediatric surgeon in the city and away from her true goals. She arrives in town mildly peeved to be there to say the least and constantly, but mostly politely ignores the affections of the obviously better natured doctor she works with who has still been asked by the Stassi to keep tabs on her and report back all he knows
As Barbara, Hoss does some truly compelling things to make an unsympathetic character human outside of the setting and circumstances that Petzold lays out for her. She’s too shell shocked when we first meet her to let anyone know how she truly feels. It’s a quite portrayal of a woman who wants to be left alone and to her own devices. She’s always carefully orchestrating her escape (and even conversely her paramour suggests that he defect to the East to save her the stress she’s obviously feeling). By that same token, she also never forgets the doctor’s oath to never do harm, and a turning point arises when she diagnoses a chronically feigning teenage girl with an actual case of meningitis.
When the same girl Barbara helps turns out to be pregnant, Hoss and Petzold begin the process of rethinking the character’s point of view very slowly and without making her heart grow three sizes bigger overnight. She still wants out, but the more and more she works in the countryside that she so openly seemed to despise at first, she begins to see problems greater than own.
Petzold’s first period piece and follow up to the slight misfire of Jerichow becomes one of the most realistic portrayals of self-discover in recent memory. It’s never showy or grandiose in where it’s headed and there’s no degree of predictability to what happens because Hoss every wisely plays Barbara as a petulant, stuck up little shit, even as her slight transformations begin. There’s no full degree of self-actualization that leads to her ultimate act of true defiance at the end. It feels like something that just happened in the moment. It would be a shame to spoil the end of the film, but it’s something that offers up a great discussions about the true motives of human nature and what would have happened under different circumstances. It’s a redemptive arc that feels surprisingly open ended and one that sticks with the viewer far longer than any grandstanding ever could.