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Film Review


Several readers have asked me recently why I seem to love every film I review. I don't love every film I see, but feel compelled to write about those that I do love. It takes me at least three hours to do a review so don't want to waste time writing about those that are second rate. But available time is usually the constraint, which explains why I only average two reviews a month; unfailingly positive.

How can a person live, much less resist, in a modern totalitarian society, such as we see today in North Korea, or just a few years ago in East Germany prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989? This theme of survival and resistance has often produced powerful stories and films such as The White Rose (1982), The Lives of Others (2006), and Persepolis (2007), to say nothing about many Holocaust related films. Of all the Eastern European Communist countries, East Germany had the most thorough and repressive system of control. The East German spy agency, Stasi, was considered to be the most effective intelligence and secret police agency in the world. It was estimated to employ an astonishing one of every seven East Germans in some capacity as informers. Surprisingly, most informers did so out of a sense of patriotism rather than for payment, although blackmail was often used. Expressions of discontent were often reported and punished, sometimes by loss of a job, forcing a move to a distant city, or even prison. Control was total, and the ubiquity of surveillance is nearly incomprehensible to us. Needless to say, people were desperate to flee and many tried to escape, with decreasing success as border controls tightened, including shoot to kill orders. At least 136 people were shot and killed attempting to cross into West Berlin, and a conservative estimate is that another 900 were killed crossing East Germany's other borders.

Christian Petzold, a talented 52 year old German director (Yella, 2007 and Jerichow, 2009) who was born in East Germany but grew up in West Germany, has tended to focus on the culture of the former East Germany. He has just produced a great film, Barbara, named for the protagonist, whose story is embedded in history. By 1980 most East Germans understand that their country is a cruel dysfunctional dictatorship with living standards far below those of West Germany. Barbara Wolff (played by the great Nina Hoss) is a doctor who is just beginning work at a small hospital in an East German village. She is aloof, clearly unhappy, constantly smoking, and her co-workers resent what they think is her arrogant "Berlin" attitude. The head doctor, Andre Reiser, a compassionate hardworking man, attempts to help her but Barbara is standoffish and does not want to socialize or even sit at the same lunch table in the cafeteria. But Barbara, skilled and experienced, is soon appreciated by Reiser. It turns out that Barbara has been "assigned" to this provincial hospital from a prestigious Berlin hospital because she applied to leave the country. Barbara suspects that Reiser is informing on her, which we witness as Riser is talking to a sinister Stasi officer "Is that her?" Riser has his own back story, which may or may not be true. Early in the film we see this same Stasi officer supervise a search of Barbara's apartment, including a chilling strip search by a female agent. Barbara has a lover, a West German businessman, who brings her commonplace items that are scarce in East Germany, such as good nylons. One day, a young woman, Stella, is brought to the hospital with peculiar symptoms that the other doctors cannot understand, but Barbara makes the correct diagnosis. Stella has attempted to escape from a harsh labor camp, and Barbara in caring for her, bonds with Stella. Barbara's character is fully developed here by the use of small incidents and remarks, that let us know her well. She is both powerful and vulnerable. Her vulnerability is emphasized by the repeated strip searches and the constant surveillance of her apartment but her power comes from her determination to be free. Even as an informant, Reiser is sympathetic as well, and Petzold has a memorable scene of him describing Rembrandt's painting of an autopsy.

Petzold has used Hoss in his previous films, and her acting is outstanding as are even minor characters. Hoss has already won several European awards, and Barbara was the German submission to the Oscars. There is virtually no soundtrack, other than the dialogue and normal sounds, which heightens the tension. Camerawork is brilliant, with both indoor and outdoor scenes beautifully photographed. Although the sky is usually overcast, the scenes of Barbara riding her bike through the countryside are lovely with the only sound that of the wind. It is perhaps the only place that she might feel at least temporarily free. The indoor footage, especially in the hospital, is very precise; many frames would make good paintings. Petzold constantly reminds us of the drabness and malaise of this society by Barbara's small apartment, the ill equipped hospital, the people pushing handcarts, the excitement of a woman looking through the German equivalent of a Sears catalog, to mention just a few. He succeeds in depicting the atmosphere of repression, suspicion and paranoia that saturated East German society. Who can you trust? Although this is superficially a low key film, the underlying tension is unrelenting throughout its 105 minutes.

Barbara is a masterpiece, and it seems strange that it was not one of the five selections for Best Foreign Film at the 2013 Oscars. It is enormously powerful and accomplished, and adds to the surprising number of great German films that have been produced in the past few years. I saw this film in NYC in January and just a day ago. Loved it even more the second time and think it the best film that I have seen so far this year, on a par with Amour. Those that loved The Lives of Others (2006), will love Barbara. Just opened at the Embarcadero Landmarks (SF), the Shattuck (Berkeley), and the Sequoia (Mill Valley).

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