Film: ‘Barbara’

A bleak Cold-War landscape: Barbara (Nina Hoss) and André (Ronald Zehrfeld)
(Photo courtesy of New York Film Festival)

There’s not an ounce of fat on “Barbara,” Christian Petzold’s precisely paced Cold War drama, set in 1980, about a Berlin doctor who finds herself banished to a bleak small-town clinic in East Germany as punishment for applying for an exit visa.

Barbara (Nina Hoss) struggles to adjust to the narrowed scope of her life, while plotting escape via her West German boyfriend, Klaus (Rainier Bock). Barbara’s daily existence at the clinic is dreary and confined, but Hoss infuses her with a restrained, steady-gazed warmth that saves the film from feeling too clinical.

Petzold wisely avoids music. Barbara’s life is measured by other sounds—running water, the clicking of sensible shoes down the hospital’s tile hallway, and every now and then a few carefully chosen words. The film’s only sustained music is a sleazy lounge number Klaus plays during a hotel tryst, a tune that suggests Barbara might be better off with André (Ronald Zehrfeld), a colleague who’s been smitten with her all along.

Of course, you can only take so much silence, and Petzold relieves the quiet tension every now and then with lovely, gusty wide shots of Barbara riding her bike through the countryside in the wind. It feels a little chilly, but it’s the kind of bracing cold that does you good. ■