This weekend, my movie class had a bonus screening of the German drama “Barbara”, starring Nina Hoss.
When an East German physician is sent to work at a remote hospital, she schemes to escape to be with her boyfriend – but will her plans be thwarted by the secret police?
In 1980 East Germany, Dr. Barbara Wolff (Hoss) is forced to work in a hospital in the middle of nowhere. Displeased with her situation in general and the people in particular, Barbara immediately applies to be transferred to another facility. What’s especially bothersome to her is her supervising physician, Andre, who attempts to befriend her despite the fact that he is required to report on her behavior and performance to the East German secret police – something Barbara is well aware of and isn’t shy about communicating to Andre.
Given her circumstances, Barbara remains resolute in not making friends with her colleagues or neighbors – as a result, she is aloof and quite unfriendly whenever approached. One of Barbara’s secrets, however, is the fact that she has a boyfriend in West Germany who occasionally makes the journey to enjoy a tryst with her. During one such meeting, they hatch a plot where he will get her some money to pay off someone to sail her by raft to Denmark where Barbara and her boyfriend will meet and live out the rest of their lives together.
Unfortunately, complications develop when Stella, a young woman who is a former patient of Barbara’s, suddenly shows up unexpectedly seeking her aid after having escaped from a prison work farm. Loyal to her patients and ready to offer help to one who is in dire need, Barbara agrees to bring Stella with her when she leaves for Denmark later that evening. Together, Barbara and the wounded Stella head off to the shore where they will meet the man with the raft. But when the secret police discover that Barbara is now missing, will they be able to find and catch her before she and Stella can flee to Denmark?
Often referred to as “The German Meryl Streep”, Nina Hoss gives an amazing performance as the stoic physician who could probably give any Englishman a run for his money in a Stiff Upper Lip competition. Hoss’ Barbara appears so emotionally detached from everyone she comes into contact with you would almost think she was a robot rather than a human being; this façade melts away, however, in the scenes with her patients and her boyfriend. As an actress, Hoss has made brilliant choices here and they all seem to work.
Also of note is the screenplay, which was co-written by the film’s director, Christian Petzold. Cleverly interwoven into the main plot are subplots concerning some of Barbara’s patients; initially, it would seem that the justification for these scenes’ existence in the script is to portray Barbara’s human side as well as her professional dedication to the ill and needy, however, the story has been crafted in such a way as to eventually make these tales necessary to the main plot. If I were to find any fault at all in “Barbara” it would be the fact that many of the references and much of the context throughout the movie require something of a reasonably keen understanding of the East German situation during the Iron Curtain years; fortunately for us, our instructor gave us a bit of a crash course in this prior to the screening, which I found helped considerably when viewing the movie.
Following the screening, our instructor interviewed the star of the film, Nina Hoss. She said that having already done several films with Petzold, he allowed her the unusual opportunity to help collaborate on the role of Barbara during the writing of the screenplay; Hoss said that he would send her about 10 or 20 pages at a time so she could read them and offer her feedback or ask questions. Hoss said that she grew up in West Germany (Stuttgart, the home of the Mercedes Benz) and wound up studying acting at a school in East Germany during the mid-90’s, approximately six years after the fall of The Berlin Wall; she added that this time in East Germany helped her to form an understanding of how to play the role of Barbara in this movie.