Emotionally Complex Barbara a Stirring Cold War Thriller
For reasons that are suspiciously unclear, esteemed physician Doctor Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss) has been transferred from her prestigious position in Berlin to a tiny pediatric hospital in the middle of sparsely populated countryside. Soon she becomes dedicated to her patientsí collective wellbeing, discovering a kinship with them she beforehand never would have imagined possible.
Nina Hoss in Barbara © Adopt Films
But the lure of escaping to the West remains, clandestinely meeting her West German lover JŲrg (Mark Waschke) deep within the forest even though she knows her every footstep is tracked by the East German Stasi. Beginning to doubt that her colleagues, especially fellow physician and self-confessed outcast Andrť (Ronald Zehrfeld), Barbara isnít sure what her next step should be. Flee with JŲrg across the border and risk the Stasi knowing of their plan? Or stay behind, taking care of the patients she has grown to love even though doing so means leaving under an iron thumb for the remainder of her days?
Itís a tough call, especially when a new pregnant patient comes under her care suffering from Meningitis, but thatís the central conundrum bubbling beneath the surface of Germanyís submission for this yearís Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Understated but tense, subtle yet broiling in uncontrolled tension, writer/director Christian Petzoldís Barbara is a masterful human thriller where the central moral dilemma is as stirring as the romantic triangle anchoring things together. As harrowing as it is audacious, this beautifully constructed Cold War potboiler is borderline masterful, the movie clicking along gracefully for every second of its 105 minute running time.
Hoss, so hypnotic in Dennis Ganselís We Are the Night, commands the screen with a steely grace and resolve thatís close to extraordinary. Thereís so much Barbara is forced to deal with, so many new relationships she must navigate, Hoss moving through these murky moral and emotional waters with mesmeric polygonal ease. She has equal chemistry with both Waschke and Zehrfeld, while the sequences developing the relationship between her and her patients, especially with Jasna Fritzi Bauer, the pregnant Meningitis sufferer, are equally impressive. Itís a performance worthy of admiration and acclaim, easily ranking as one of the more complicated and nuanced 2012 has had to offer.
Petzold directs with an unhurried confidence, letting things play out at their own measured pace yet at the same time never allowing the film to stall out or feel anything close to being on the slow side of the equation. While attention must be paid, while the intricacies of the central mystery (will she or will she not make the trek to freedom potentially leaving a patient to suffer and die and is Andrť playing both sides to his own benefit) are constantly shifting and twisting with the cold country wind, thereís little that ever feels forced or out of place. The filmmaker has dotted all his Iís and crossed all of his Tís, the finished feature a master class effort in self-assured suspense Hollywood could use to take note of.
I wonít say that I didnít catch on fairly quickly where all of this was headed, of course, or that I was caught off guard by anything that happened during the emotionally intense climactic moments. Even so, that doesnít mean I was completely enthralled by everything that Petzold was showing me, this as a grand a thriller as anything Iíve seen this year. A wonderful movie, anchored by a tour-de-force performance by Hoss that must be seen to be believed, Barbara is spectacular entertainment worthy of multiple viewings.
Film Rating: ÍÍÍ1/2 (out of 4)