There seems to a pattern of push and pull dynamics when it comes to a majority of modern European cinema. Once the great repositories of high art, many of the Western European national cinemas fell victim to the conglomerate and governmental swallowing of their cinematic ingenuity and now seem to uncomfortably rest in the backwaters of old Hollywood lots, churning out mediocre romantic comedies and sleek thrillers; genre cinema essentially. On the other end of the spectrum lies a resistance to these practices that try as hard as they may, fail to distinguish themselves in true opposition. Not to make blanket statements about as complex an industry as any, but as can be seen, pattern is the operative word. In an effort to combat these practices, there has arisen a type of cinema that aims to thrust against the escapist qualities of their contemporaries by existing as their clear opposite. Rather than mimic their masters however, filmmakers tend more to present a film with the least of cinematic frills and adopt a clear sense of realism rather than artifice. Such is the case with Christian Petzold’s newest film Barbara, but unfortunately it further illustrates that realism isn’t a place card for ingenuity, something the great European masters were wholly aware of.
Barbara takes place in 1980 in the midst of the separation status imposed upon Germany by the Berlin wall. This tale takes place on the East side, which is occupied by the German Democratic Republic, or more specifically in a small seaside town outside of Berlin. Barbara (Nina Hoss) is a physician formerly of a prestigious East Berlin hospital who has been sent to a rural hospital out of punishment for applying for an official transfer to West Germany. There she meets colleague André (Ronald Zehrfeld), who becomes intrigued by her distanced demeanour and her ability to handle unruly patients. At the same time, Barbara is attempting to escape out of the East with the help of her lover Jörg (Mark Waschke) whilst simultaneously coming under scrutiny from the townspeople and physical interrogation from the Stasi.
Barbara at its core presents us with a relatively intriguing character study and a microcosmic view of life under the Stasi rule. Barbara’s plight is presented in a mostly clinical way with actions and motivations coming to dominate much of the thrust of the narrative. The story itself is one of modest fascination as we attempt to unravel the thought processes behind the actions of these mostly contemplative and insular characters.
Nina Hoss performs competently enough, displaying a sense of forced repression and careful manoeuvring in order to survive under such scrutiny and Ronald Hehrfeld as André is similarly subtle, portraying a deep sense of respect that unfolds into powerlessness as he ultimately stifles his desire for Barbara in the face of enforced government action. While the performative and narrative functions of Barbara elicit varying levels of viewership attention, there is a dull and static nature to the proceedings, which fails to neither invigorate nor compliment the film’s essential structure.
This essential structure is one of the no frills variety, where each aspect of the story is portrayed rigidly, and thus, lifelessly. It’s close to another European cinematic phenomenon, that of Italian Neorealism, an obviously irrefutable influence on much of the cinema that graces our screens today and will until its dying days. However, unlike the Neorealists who still focused on the construction of a frame, Christian Petzold makes the assumption that static equals serious. Nothing is more frustrating then a film that refuses to be cinematic and then provides no basis for doing so. That in a nutshell seems to be Barbara. Heap a strangely irresponsible ending on that from a narrative point of view and you have a film that could have been great, if it was in the hands of a director who actually seems interested in the craft.