You could say Christian Petzold makes thrillers, but they’re less concerned with plot than the sociopolitical conditions their characters inhabit. In Jerichow, 2009’s loose adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, steamy sex and betrayal took a backseat to money problems; it’s debt that drove the narrative. In his latest Barbara—a Main Slate selection of the NYFF, placing Petzold at last within the ranks of leading international auteurs—politics and plot unite: a portrait of East Germany in 1980, the movie, practically a prison-break drama, depicts a country whose every inhabitant longs to escape, a citizenry made fearful and miserable by oppression. “You can’t be happy here,” the title character says to her lover, sounding like she’s voicing less a personal observation than a cultural rule.
Barbara, played by Petzold regular Nina Hoss, is a steely doctor recently released from prison (we’re never told why, though political reasons seem a safe assumption) and given a job at a hospital in the provinces, where she will eventually face a Bogartian crisis of conscience: stay and help at personal risk, or save herself and flee? Her cool exterior is matched by Petzold and his usual cinematographer Hans Fromm’s icy yet glowing compositions; Hoss warms up rarely, usually with patients. The first time she smiles, really smiles, comes 90 minutes into a 105-minute movie. And it doesn’t linger long on her face.
The cool formal precision is reminiscent of The Lives of Others, also about East German totalitarianism. Barbara concerns pre-glasnost police state, an ambient presence in the film until it’s something more. The Stasi haunt Barbara, periodically searching her apartment, keeping her (you get the impression) under surveillance. She is up to something, something you suspect the East Germans wouldn’t like, but Petzold only treats us to glimpses of this conspiratorial private life. Like the state, we are doing a kind of surveillance as spectators, piecing together the mystery of this character, her identity, just like her watchers. Curiously, this puts us in an antagonistic position to our hero, especially for critics, who might feel, ahem, as though they’re just one more civilian informant filing a report.
Barbara screens tonight and again this weekend and next week. More info here.
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