It’s the wind that does it. As much as banished East German doctor Nina Hoss, the wind that scours the countryside and threatens to wipe Hoss away is a principal character in Christian Petzold’s pensive drama Barbara. A cypher at first, Hoss keeps to herself, rebuffing even mild courtesies from boss Ronald Zehrfeld. Like Germany at the time—the film is set in 1980, although few chronological markers are given—she’s divided, her inner self walled off from any who’d attempt to come close.
Hoss’ withdrawn state isn’t simply a matter of pique. From the first scene, when her new colleagues gaze from a distance at her enjoying a solitary cigarette, she’s constantly under surveillance—mostly brutally by the Stasi, who violate her with regular cavity searches, but from her hospital colleagues and potentially even her patients, too. As it turns out, she does have a secret: She’s planning an escape to be with her lover in West Germany. But it wouldn’t matter either way.
Barbara is Hoss’ fifth film with Petzold, and the movie rests on the depth and subtlety of their working relationship. Petzold trusts the actor to allow her character’s humanity to seep through, even as she shirks from human contact; she trusts him to capture minute, almost imperceptible gradations of feeling. Even when she’s with others, Hoss seems alone, and for a good piece of the movie, she’s the only person in the frame, struggling to keep her bike upright as she checks out a hidden stash of money on a country road, a gale bending the long grass around her sideways. It’s as if the earth itself is against her.
There’s a not especially hidden streak of melodrama at Barbara’s core, right down to the ending, which amounts to a reprise of a World War II-era Hollywood classic. (Saying which would spoil it.) But it’s melodrama viewed through the wrong end of a telescope, without overbearing music or portentous dialogue to drive every development home. Petzold handles personal, formal, and political concerns in such perfect balance, it’s difficult, and not especially desirable, to separate one from the next. The movie is dense but never feels it, assembled with easy mastery and engrossing throughout.