Barbara’s elliptical beginning delivers the eponymous heroine, a doctor, to a provincial hospital in a seaside town. She is just released from some unspecified incarceration, and still under surveillance from the implacable secret police. Only gradually do we realize that this is East Germany in the early 80s, and only gradually do we warm to Barbara’s sour trout face and hard, defiant, watchful eyes.
The film’s first two acts play out with a suspense of unknown motive and an uncertainty of trust, as kindly young Dr André tries to make a connection with his new colleague, whilst she secretly receives a package of money and meets her lover, deliriously, in the woods. Christian Petzold directs with the steely exactitude familiar from Jerichow  and Yella , giving away no more than necessary, while the two leads suggest wells of feeling and unspecified desire, firmly repressed. The small town’s slow pace is carefully evoked, and its provincial remoteness rather nicely conjured by the dramatic wind-whipped landscape through which Barbara cycles to her work and assignations.
Petzold favourite Nina Hoss takes the lead, and effectively owns the film. Her performance is one of terrific restraint, in harmony with the supreme caginess of her character, and fantastic command of the slightest facial gesture. On a dime she can switch from careful guardedness to professional empathy, efficiency and concern, and as the film progresses, she lets us see how Barbara allows herself to open up a little, but never too much.
Which is not to do down Ronald Zehrfeld as André, a likable, bearish figure with a streak of melancholy and a slightly distracting resemblance to Brendan Fraser, but his character ultimately, with gentle manner, intelligence, and herb garden, is a bit too good to be true, and lacking in shading. We cannot share the doubts that Barbara must necessarily have about him, and by the end of the film he has been clearly set up as a sensitive and acceptable alternative to life outside the GDR – a casual comment from Barbara’s lover slighting her vocation is enough to show him as unsuitable.
In fact, everything becomes rather too clear-cut in the film’s final act. A jarring coincidence ushers in the single explicit moral issue, blithely dealt with – André has no reason not to be noble, and Barbara is too much the quietly compassionate professional for us quite to believe her opposition. The inevitable question of whether she should choose her own best interest, or her responsibilities as a doctor (in a place which needs her) is completely made for her by yet another, even less believable coincidence, a knock on Barbara’s door from someone who couldn’t possibly know her address.
For every excellent touch, such as the complete lack of music in the film apart from Barbara’s (perfectly chosen) piece of piano playing (I wish I knew what piece it was), there’s a clunker like the jarring pop song of the closing credits, the self-contradictory interpretation of Rembrandt’s Dr Tulp’s Anatomy Lesson, terribly obvious lines like “you can’t be happy here”, or the burnt-out socket that first of all Barbara would never have tried to use, and which recurs alternately with a plug in it or not. Throughout, the direction and camerawork are careful and measured, but when the script must starts to explain itself towards the end, it becomes simplistic and obvious, and not even Hoss’s forceful central performance can save the film.
Film’s Festival Page: Barbara
World Cinema Section
Director: Christian Petzold
Screenwriter: Christian Petzold
Producers: Florian Koerner von Gustorf, Michael Weber
Executive Producer: Michael Weber
Cinematographer: Hans Fromm
Editor: Bettina Böhler
Production Designer: K.D. Gruber
Music: Stefan Will
Cast: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Jasna Fritzi Bauer, Mark Waschke, Rainer Bock
Running Time (minutes): 105