Though maybe a bit too stiff and straight-laced, “Barbara” is a frequently subtle, moderately interesting character study set in a grievous East Germany during the 1980s. What are especially nice are the painstaking ways that director Christian Petzold (“Jerichow,” “Dreileben: Beats Being Dead“) avoids obvious nods to the time period — forget drenching the film in some kind of filter as a signifier (a la the once-abused-now-Instagram-friendly sepiatone), the filmmaker even refuses simple explanatory title cards and instead dresses the environment appropriately, offering hints of the current year in the background set pieces and radio programs. This kind of understated nature runs the entire feature; in fact, one of the most intriguing aspects of “Barbara” is the lack of narrative hand-holding, with the lead’s main intent remaining a mystery for a good chunk of the movie. There are no twists to spoil, but admittedly, much of the film’s pull anchors on its masterful use of low-key storytelling — take a gander at the next paragraph at your own risk.
In their fifth collaboration together, refined German actress Nina Hoss stars as the titular character, first introduced as she arrives at a tiny hospital in the country. Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) looks upon her with a near-instant infatuation, but the chain-smoking Barbara views him with distrustful eyes — much like she does with everyone aside from her patients, who instead are received with contrasting comfort. All in all, she’s a simple, private woman with few hobbies, unless we count sucking on cancer sticks as a leisurely pastime. We’ve got her all figured out — until she begins sneaking off to random places, taking scheduled meetings with various people and accepting packages of money. If that’s not suspicious enough, she’s routinely followed by the Stasi, and eventually has her room searched by the GDR’s State Security. Andre continues to seek the woman’s attention, so much so that she begins to develop feelings for him as well. But these dual lives — the nurturing doctor and guileful rogue — become equally demanding, and it soon becomes impossible to efficiently juggle both. A choice must be made, with each road containing grave consequences.
“Barbara” is a well-crafted snapshot of a particular time in Germany, and Petzold smartly avoids whoring out the socialist state as a nasty, persecuting place — make no mistake, that specific atmosphere is still there, but the filmmaker mostly focuses on the important, meaningful things that are dear to his characters. This includes small, seemingly insignificant moments (like scenic bicycle rides, Barbara’s default mode of transportation), but also involves the more substantial ones such devotion to the sick and, the most crucial element, the budding romance between the co-stars. It’s a moderate, refreshing perspective — a likely truer depiction than others that have previously attempted.
And while “Barbara” gets plenty right, there’s still something that feels a tad bit off. It could be the extreme attention paid to the aforementioned courtship, something that handles well thematically but feels somewhat undercooked on other, more immediate levels. Petzold’s subtle hand works on almost every level, but here the aesthetic backfires — the actors, while compelling in their own right, have very little chemistry together, making the crawling arc of their relationship much less absorbing than it should be. Maybe it’s just the victim of a perfectionist: “Barbara” is crisply shot, but almost too much so. As the film progresses, the shooting style starts to feel terribly stoic, dry, and unmoving — there’s not a single visual flourish in sight, nor any experimentation of any kind. In a weird way, Petzold instills a yearning for the camera to miss a mark or something of the like just to let things breathe and be free of the regimented style. For a film that takes pains to focus on peoples’ lives during a precise era, its stern sensibility sometimes gets in the way of genuine soul.
Regardless, “Barbara” evokes the feeling of a time long gone, reinterpreting it as something more tangible, more realistic than what has become the typical setting for a pornographic thriller. Petzold is able to find love amidst the congestion, paranoia, and repression. [B-]