As the calendar year comes to a close, a key film from the 2012 festival circuit receives commercial release in the U.S., a tense historical inquiry from one of Germany's most important contemporary filmmakers. Sadly and surprisingly, Barbara did not make the short list for Oscar consideration; it's a rare year in which there were simply too many strong foreign language movies to make the cut.
But Barbara is likely to connect with American audiences even without the Academy's attention. Anchored by an award-worthy lead performance by Nina Hoss, this character study depicts life under circumstances most of us could never even imagine, showing how impossible choices become normalized under those awful constraints.
Barbara is the latest effort by director Christian Petzold, who is not yet an arthouse brand name in North America or even in Europe (as compared to, say, Pedro Almodóvar, Michael Haneke or Lars von Trier), but is easily Germany's highest-profile contemporary auteur. He is a poet of anomie, an artist of penetrating sociological insight whose ongoing topic of exploration has been the crisis of reunification. Whereas Petzold's recent films Yella and especially Jerichow examined the lingering impact of the German Democratic Republic upon post-communism's displaced nomads, Barbara is a period piece, situating his benighted characters within the terror and malaise of the East German 1980s.
Dr. Barbara Wolff (Hoss) has been sent from Berlin to the countryside for unspecified transgressions against the state. At her new post, she reports to Dr. Reiner (Ronald Zehrfeld), a young, talented doctor who, we learn, informs to the Stasi to keep his own mistakes from catching up with him. Barbara and her West Berliner lover (Mark Waschke) plan to sneak her into the West, but things get complicated. She was intent on merely marking time and passing through, but between having her apartment tossed and periodic body-cavity searches, she becomes personally invested in the young patients who, like her, are victims of the GDR's Stalinist tyranny.