A small, unassuming, and personal film, Barbara has a lot going for it. The movie portrays a slice of everyday life in East Germany in the 1980s without wallowing in depressing despair or poverty. The presence of the oppressive socialist regime of the time can be sensed throughout the proceedings, but for the most part only indirectly and in the background. In fact, the picture has its fair share of contrastingly idyllic qualities which give it a certain edge.
Writer/director Christian Petzold’s screenplay (co-written by Harun Farocki) is minimalistic yet insightful and generally effective, and his low-key, straightforward direction wisely leaves it up to the actors to carry the film on their shoulders and make the story compelling. Petzold creates a tangible atmosphere of suspicion and surveillance that functions as an invisible wet blanket on people’s minds and also results in several suspenseful moments.
While I appreciate that the movie does not spell everything out for the viewer, a bit more historical context would have been welcome. For example, it took me quite a while to realize why, in one scene, everyone stops what they are doing to look at two parachutes in the sky.
Another issue I have with Barbara has to do with the emotional distance that exists between the central characters and the viewer. Initially, it is no doubt intentional, but some of it remains even when the final scenes of the movie play out.
And speaking of the ending—Barbara (Nina Hoss) faces a dilemma that comes across as somewhat forced. Additionally, the film left me wondering what would happen to Barbara as a consequence of her actions.
Thanks to Hans Fromm’s picturesque cinematography, Barbara has a strong visual language. Period details are excellent, and I felt transported back to the point in time when the story takes place.
Hoss’s nuanced acting allows the human warmth of the eponymous protagonist to slowly but surely break through the character’s rather cold surface in a convincing way as the movie progresses. Ronald Zehrfeld is very good in the role of André, delivering a performance that subtly emphasizes the ambiguity of André’s motives.