Jan 23, 2013

A classy European character study.

Grade: A-
Director: Christian Petzold
Screenplay: Petzold, Harun Farocki
Cast: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld
by John DeSando

In the semi-darkness of 1980 East Germany, it’s cold and dangerous.  No more so than if you want to travel to freedom, as the titular doctor of Barbara (Nina Hoss) wishes to do.  Except that her visa application ended her up in the provinces, a long way from her elite hospital in Berlin.

The tension in this intelligently-paced, smartly European character study cum thriller is palpable as Stasi agents stalk the doctor, searching relentlessly for the money she must have to plan her defection. Freedom becomes the leitmotif touching each plot point, whether it is her growing affection for her colleague, Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), her passion for her West German lover, Jorg (Mark Waschke), or her humane love for her patients, especially her pregnant meningitis waif, Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), whom she saves and protects.

Director Christian Petzold (whose family fled the German Democratic Republic) fashions a mise en scene uncluttered with people or objects, like the immaculate hospital itself. Even the film’s pace is measured, at times almost listless. It’s as if life has been pared down to its essential living or dying.

Nowhere is this sparseness more on display than in Dr. Barbara herself, a model of smug efficiency and secret longings, riding a bicycle to work like a schoolgirl who knows much more than she is giving out. Hanks Fromm’s camera offers color and vibrancy during these times, a relief from the gloomy confines of her apartment. Her paranoia about everyone she works with, including Dr. Andre, partially creates this aura of self-centeredness more than the “Berlin” pride that others see.

The road she takes to work is lined with trees that blow ferociously with the ever present wind, like the ominous presence of local Stasi officer Klaus (Rainer Bock) who lets her know by random searches of her apartment and person that she will not escape. Her plans to go to Denmark form the action center of the film that in the end is really about the heart that beats under repression and the love that grows out of seemingly impossible freedom.  That big Wall did come down, I recall!

John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at He also appears on Fox 28’s Man Panel. Contact him at