With Barbara, estimable German helmer Christian Petzold, one of the leading lights of the much-talked about "Berlin School", delivers his finest, most affecting film. In many ways, it is the apex of his work so far, the film where his observationally cool, remarkably economical style of filmmaking fits the theme and mood of the film most exactingly; the 1980s-set tale of a woman's personal and moral journey towards the humanity within herself that she took for granted practically demands the precision of Mr. Petzold's clinical handling.

     Here, the imperceptible closing of the camera on Barbara's face as she understands more about her predicament, away from the more general group shots where she is a figure in a landscape or a member of a group, gives away the director's intent: making her realize where individuality and humanity really lies, an important point for a tale set in the rigidly regulated East Germany of the early 1980s, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Barbara (an impeccably modulated performance from Nina Hoss, a regular in Mr. Petzold's work) is a Berlin doctor assigned to a provincial hospital over an unstated misdemeanor while being regularly intruded upon by the local elements of the secret police. She is still planning to escape to live with her West German businessman lover, but what she really wants comes into focus when a pregnant teenager (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) comes in with a case of meningitis.

     As usual in Mr. Petzold's films, most of the back story is left entirely unsaid, but what matters is what is happening now, in front of the camera: the questions that Barbara asks herself, her own realisation of her place in the world, the immaculately composed veneer of distance and loneliness brilliantly underplayed by Ms. Hoss being slowly chipped at by the undrstanding that, even in a totalitarian regime, withdrawal and refusal may not be the answer. Mr. Petzold's methodical, almost geometrical construction only helps Barbara become ever more affecting and touching as it inexorably moves toward a dénouement that is as remarkable as it is hardly expected.

Cast: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Mark Waschke, Jasna Fritzi Bauer, Rainer Bock

Director and writer: Christian Petzold
Cinematography: Hans Fromm  (colour)
Music: Stefan Will
Designer: K. D. Gruber
Costumes: Anette Guther
Editor: Bettina Böhler
Producers: Florian Koerner von Gustorf, Michael Weber (Schramm Film Koerner + Weber in co-production with ZDF and ARTE)
Germany, 2012, 101 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, January 27th 2013


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