The unmistakable snap of the latex gloves could mean only one thing. Discovered riding home on her bike well after she should have arrived home, Barbara (Nina Hoss) must be hiding something. That's what the men in the blue Mercedes think. So they take her inside, toss her house looking for whatever, and commence the cavity search. Snap.
That seems like rough treatment, especially for a respected pediatric physician, but Barbara recently requested permission to leave East Germany. She wants to move to the other side of the Berlin Wall to be with her lover, Jörg (Mark Waschke), and that makes her an enemy of the state. Instead of granting her request, the government moves her to the middle of nowhere, under the watchful eye of the secret police, the Stasi. She also has the attention of her chief of surgery, who may be romantically interested in her, a government informant, or both.
We don't often get looks behind the Iron Curtain from what was once the land behind the Iron Curtain. The Lives of Others won the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2007, but it is widely believed that its subject matter—a heavy criticism of East German surveillance during the Cold War— kept the film out of the Berlin Film Festival a year earlier. In fact, Germany has largely failed to examine its communist past, although since The Lives of Others, that has started to change.
Like that film, Barbara is Germany's official foreign-language entry in this year's Academy Awards, and it is also set toward the end of the Cold War, in that period where it's darkest just before the dawn. The paranoia, to borrow a line from Buffalo Springfield, runs deep. But not all paranoia is delusion: On the night that the Stasi invade Barbara's home, they're right; she is hiding something. Barbara has been with Jörg, who has the means to pass more freely between West and East Berlin. If he can, he will extract her from her current predicament, though in the meantime, the visits and his money help.
Barbara sees something of herself in a teenage patient named Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer). Stella injured herself escaping from a labor prison, and she, too, has her sights set on fleeing East Germany. But though Stella's circumstance steels her resolve even more, especially once the girl is dragged back to the prison, Barbara is constantly reminded of the important work she's doing in the hospital. If she leaves for her own freedom, what will become of not only these patients, but those yet to come?
Nina Hoss has collaborated with writer-director Christian Petzold on four previous occasions, and on three of those projects, she walked home with hardware of some kind. She already has for this one, too, as a matter of fact. The kind of bond that a filmmaker and an actor share when they implicitly trust one another is unmistakable, and in many cases, that can only be forged over time. In a film loaded with intrigue, Petzold knows that Hoss will only reveal what he wants revealed. Barbara can't find other ways out of her maze, and we can't see any hope of it in Hoss' performance. We're as in the dark about her next step as she is.
Barbara is an unconventional thriller, one that simmers throughout without ever looking like it's about to bubble over. But it is also highly effective and quietly gripping, a terrific exercise in restraint from our heroine, as well as from the director and his muse.