Films taking place just on the other side of the iron curtain during the Cold War are more or less guaranteed to revolve around similar fundamental themes. Paranoia, surveillance and brave individuals who, in various ways, subvert the system by carrying out actions that they intrinsically feel are the ‘right thing to do’ are the order of the day in the ‘Iron Curtain Drama’. Barbara very much continues in this vein, only with a more intimate focus on the internal workings of its characters, rather than the workings of the oppressive system that they inhabit.
Set in a small East German town, Barbara tells the story of two doctors working at the local hospital who grow increasingly close through their strong sense of duty as medical professionals. Barbara (Nina Hoss) is determined to flee the country, and is secretly planning an escape with her one-dimensional West German lover. Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) meanwhile, has been assigned by the Communist Party to make notes of events occurring at the hospital, as punishment for presiding over a horribly botched medical procedure back in the city.
The relationship between the leading pair refuses to drift into gooey sentimentality, and both actors convince in their performances as people disillusioned with the regime, but unwavering in their doctorly duties. Barbara is initially hostile to Andre, seeing him as a representative of the regime she so despises. Their relationship, however, builds up around a couple of patients at the hospital. One is Stella, a pregnant girl who is determined not to give birth to her child in East Germany. The other is a young man who is left in a critical state after attempting suicide, and the doctors must decide quickly whether or not he should undergo surgery. Their genuine shared desire to help these people soon puts them on the same side, leading Barbara to become torn as to where her priorities really lie.
The sense of restraint pervading throughout Barbara makes for intriguing viewing. In the bleak setting of East Germany, director’s decision to go with largely static camera-work and avoidance of a soundtrack does well to convey a sense of stagnation. Of course, this is exactly what we’d expect of East Germany, and aside from morally-oriented leading pair and the fiery Stella, it seems that everyone is simply a drone of the Communist regime. Either that, or a one-dimensional do-gooder (Barbara’s lover) who helps people escape the country.
Yet this lack of periphery characters allows us to focus more on the understated performances of the lead pair. Hoss’s clenched-jaw pouting depicts a character determined to get on with her duties, while facing a constant internal battle about her loyalties – between her lover and Andre; between her doctor’s duties and her desire for freedom. Zehrfeld, meanwhile, does an adept job in getting us to warm to his character; his initial veil of arrogance coming down to show a man with an unwavering desire to help people that makes Barbara reconsider her own priorities.
As the film moves steadily towards its crescendo, there are a few obligatory moments that remind us of the tough times the characters are living in. A small sub-plot develops after Stella gets taken away to a work camp, and the oppressive authorities make their presence felt on a couple of occasions. They come across as fairly inefficient however, and for the most part Barbara’s path to her goal of escape seems very attainable. While this paves the way for us to focus on Barbara’s internal dilemma, it does also lead a void in suspense where it could easily have been created.
Barbara is a strong film on all fronts, with earthly performances and a softly-softly approach to the burgeoning relationship at its centre. It leaves you guessing too, as it’s difficult to tell what Barbara will do in her moral conundrum. In the end, events seem to – slightly over-conveniently – work in her favour to ease her decision, but it’s also clear that, like any person, she’s only human, and prone to the occasional moral lapse. Perhaps the sense of iron curtain oppression could have imposed itself more, but this doesn’t detract from the film’s unsentimental approach to themes of duty, desires and love.