Combustible Celluloid
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With: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Rainer Bock, Chrstina Hecke, Claudia Geisler, Peter Weiss, Carolin Haupt
Written by: Christian Petzold, Harun Farocki
Directed by: Christian Petzold
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexual material, thematic elements and smoking
Language: German, with English subtitles
Running Time: 105
Date: 02/11/2012

Barbara (2013)

3 Stars (out of 4)

German Shepherding

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Christian Petzold's Barbara manages to depict horror and heroism in the East Germany of the early 1980s, without resorting to hysterics or preaching. This is a remarkably subtle movie, spending most of its energy zeroing in on the clenched face of its heroine, looking for cracks.

Barbara (Nina Hoss) is a doctor banished to a small country hospital. She quickly begins looking for a way to escape to the West, though she is occasionally subjected to ruthless searches of her apartment and her person, and she can't seem to ride her bicycle home without a sense of paranoia and panic.

But her plans to leave are slowly complicated by another doctor, the kind, quiet Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), who has likewise been banished to the rural hospital. Despite their status, the two doctors begin to bond over certain patients, especially a suicidal young man.

Just like in a Hollywood thriller, Barbara's troubles come to a head when two events are scheduled at the same time, and she must choose. Likewise, the story builds a fairly traditional romantic tension between Andre and Barbara, the payoff of which is kept at bay by Barbara's secrets.

However, Petzold handles these traditional plot turns with incredible patience and stillness, slowing them down and exploring their shadows and depths. Hoss is the real key to the film, however. She has a beautiful, hard face that looks as if it has been purposely, painfully shut down thanks to years of anguish. She knows how to use this instrument in the most minute of ways, letting out momentary bursts of emotion that help drive the story. It's an impressive performance, one that has been much awarded overseas.

Barbara manages a very healthy mix of traditional, familiar storytelling and patience. Its matter-of-fact approach assumes intelligence on the part of the viewer, and the historical stuff about East Germany is left as an emotional state rather than a history lesson. It's the kind of movie that could draw a healthy crowd at the art house.

Kino Lorber released Barbara on Blu-ray; the quality is excellent, but it's a bare-bones disc, with no extras, and not even a menu for the chapter stops. (All it has is a "play movie" option.)

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