December 21, 2012


by Vadim Rizov


Christian Petzold's last film Dreileben: Beats Being Dead centered on a nurse who takes up with a girl after he's seen her performing fellatio in a forest; sex, surveillance and shrubbery again intersect in Barbara. The title character (Nina Hoss, in her fifth Petzold film) is a doctor who's been sent down from Berlin to an unnamed provincial area near the Baltic Sea, her punishment for applying for a visa to exit the country. Privacy is non-existent in 1980 East Germany: the first shot is a close-up of Barbara's pinched face on a bus, alone in the frame but surrounded by unseen bodies. Exiting into an empty square in front of her new hospital, she seems momentarily alone but isn't: from an upper-story window, her new colleague/watchdog André observes her along with his Stasi supervisor Klaus (Rainer Bock). Aware she's being watched, she sits and lights a cigarette, a mulish gesture of refusal to enter work even a minute before she's due.

Barbara's assigned a terrible apartment in a building managed by a dourly glaring landlady. The walls are thin enough to remind her she's never alone: the sound of barking dogs, reacting to unseen threats, is less unnerving than the constant shrilling of a defectively stuttering doorbell, a harbinger of unwanted visitors—most commonly Klaus and his assistants, including a woman on call specifically to conduct cavity searches. The visuals have the tense menace of a horror movie, a style Petzold's dubbed "spatial suspense". But Barbara never explodes into full shock: like its heroine, it bides its time quietly.


The watchful eyes on Barbara turn out to be justifiable from an authoritarian perspective: she's planning to flee to West Berlin, using funds from boyfriend Jörg (Mark Waschke). Their relationship is clandestinely renewed in forest and hotel couplings. Though their sexual chemistry is genuine, their personal compatibility is otherwise uncertain. When Jörg tells Barbara she won't have to work in her new life, she's taken aback. Barbara's main point of suspense—will she make it out of the country?—is less important than the dilemma she faces: professional satisfaction and personal nullification in the East, the exact opposite in the West.

This dichotomy's a little too simplistic, especially when the ideological divide is literally embodied in two men, a thematic misstep in an otherwise assured work. (Though it's worth noting that Barbara's a rarity in one plot sense: a love triangle in which only the pivot point is aware of the triangle's existence.) Burgeoning professional respect and romantic tension between Barbara and André are compromised by their political roles as watched and watcher. Like Barbara, André is a former urban cosmopolitan sent to the boondocks; his loyalty to the GDR is possibly as much a matter of expediency as genuine belief in an order that would like its doctors to repay the cost of their training with service to The People. Between hospital and home—both under the ever watchful eye of the Stasi—Barbara snatches out furtive moments alone, using her bicycle to escape surveillance. As the plot screws tighten, whether she'll actually pull off her escape becomes a matter of suspense. The viewer knows something Barbara doesn't: within nine years, she'll be able to leave the country freely, a historical irony suggesting ambivalence about a transition towards capitalistic freedom.


It wouldn't be fair to spoil the ending, but Petzold's final joke is well worth noting. Throughout the film, only classical music is heard, both on state radio and in Barbara's own piano performances (Hoss plays herself, something Petzold understandably can't resist highlighting in a rare pan up from her hands to her face). But over the final end credits, we hear the first pop strains: a live rendition of Chic's "At Last I Am Free." Sonic liberty's a start, but is Nile Rodgers the highest reward democratic capitalism has to offer? Possibly, but Petzold isn't saying.

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Posted by ahillis at December 21, 2012 11:50 AM