As the title character in “Barbara,” Nina Hoss doesn’t smile. She isn’t even friendly to Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), the fellow doctor who dotes on her. The two are stationed in a miserable hospital in a small town with drab wallpaper, colorless clothes, ominous officials and a general air of zombification. They’re living in East Germany during the Cold War in 1980.
Like the film “The Lives of Others,” “Barbara” takes an unflattering look at life in the German Democratic Republic during the Cold War — but it’s not a comforting portrait of a difficult time we know is safely in the past. Instead, “Barbara” is a character study laced with an old-fashioned “woman’s picture” and meshed with a neo-noir film.
As it becomes slowly evident, Barbara has been banished to this small town after applying for an exit visa. In between regular visits from stern state officials, she still plans her escape. The only time she warms up is during secret visits from her lover, the man who is arranging their defection to the West. Complications arise when he happens upon a young, wounded woman, whose need to get out of the country may eclipse his own.
The career of director Christian Petzold has so far partly been dedicated to methodical neo-noirs; “Jerichow,” his most seen film, was a riff on “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” He has a deliberate, precise style that’s fairly intoxicating, even when the material is familiar. That’s put slightly to the test with “Barbara,” which, despite initial obfuscation, is clearly headed toward a too-tidy redemption/love story. Even before Barbara meets the young woman, it’s obvious where this will end. The same goes for whether or not she will warm to Andre, whose persistence — and method of flirting, which involves pointers on art appreciation — would break down even Isabelle Huppert at her most blood-cold.
Foreordained as its conclusion may be, “Barbara” is still rewarding viewing, not only for Petzold’s steady direction, but for the perversely normal way it portrays GDR life. The Stasi look more like common thugs from a film noir than cartoonish baddies, and they’re even afforded moments of humanity. And while Hoss’ impressively mirthless, yet furtively emotional, turn is itself a kind of art house cliche, Zehrfeld does offer an amusing twist as the smitten nice guy who will inevitably finish first.
Director: Christian Petzold
Stars: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld