Friday, March 28, 2014

Barbara (Christian Petzold, 2012)

"The heavens are what split first", wrote Christa Wolf in her 1963 novel Divided Heaven in the aftermath of the construction of the Berlin Wall. Even if a quarter of a century has passed since the heavens reconciled (the Wall fell in 1989) apparently that chapter in German history still proves an inexhaustible source of inspiration for contemporary German cinema, see for example Sonnenallee (1999), Goodbye Lenin (2003) and the Academy Award winner The Lives Of The Others (2006). But when is the former East Germany backdrop motivated by the urgence of filmmakers to grapple with a recent past that still hurts, and when is it more an exploitative choice, of the sort made by Liliana Cavani with The Night Porter?

Christian Petzold's Barbara tells the story of a DDR physician (played by an icy Nina Hoss) who finds herself confined in a small hospital near the Baltic Sea for having requested an exit visa from the German Democratic Republic. It is about 1980 when she arrives at her new destination. She gets off the bus, lights a cigarette and sits on a park bench waiting for her work shift to begin. From behind a window of the hospital, her future chief physician André Reiser and a Stasi officer are watching her carefully.

As the story unfolds, we gradually get more acquainted with Barbara. She is diffident and proud, yet passionate in her job at the pediatric hospital. At first appearing withdrawn and disconnected, later we discover that she possesses a compassionate bedside manner as well as a certain musical sensibility. We learn that she has brief encounters in secret with her West German lover Jörg, and that he has conceived a plan for helping her to escape into West Germany, where they could al last be happy together far from the Stasi's surveillance. Meanwhile, the increasing empathy between doctor André and Barbara complicates things.

(*Spoiler Alert*)

The premise is indeed enticing. But surprisingly enough, from a certain point on the plot goes on autopilot. What at first seemed a hard decision for Barbara to take - to stay or leave, with all its consequences - proves to be an inevitable choice. Her relationship with Jörg is struggling: there is no chemistry between them, as we realize when they meet for the first time after Barbara's exile. Besides, she is beginning to enjoy the town's way of life, not least because of her rewarding job and André's inspiring presence. And if these reasons were not enough for predicting how this story will find its conclusion, Stella's appearance leaves no room for doubts.

Stella is a young girl escaped from a youth detention centre. As she is delivered to the hospital, the doctors struggle to identify the origins of her sickness and start to suspect that she is faking her symptoms in order to avoid being returned to the labor camp. Luckily, she is promptly diagnosed with meningitis by Barbara, who soon develops a maternal bond with the young runaway.

The character of Stella has a precise function in the structure of the story: to dispense Barbara from the moral burden her decision of staying in East Germany would otherwise carry. If it weren't for Stella, we could fairly conclude that Barbara is a mere opportunist. This is all the more evident if we consider that: 1) Stella incredibly manages to escape a second time from the detention centre, 2) possesses a bloodhound instinct that allows her to trace where Barbara lives, and 3) turns up at Barbara's home right on the night of the planned escape. Of course, the passport for freedom is valid only for one person. Given these premises, are we surprised when Barbara sacrifices herself for her young protégé? Not really. And I did not even mention that the girl is pregnant. (Well, thinking it over, the passport for freedom is valid for two persons.)

But Stella is far from the only cog in the machine. Mario is a young boy who is taken to the hospital after a suicide attempt. Without his presence in the story, Doctor André would not realize (at the expense of a great deal of poignancy) that Barbara has the intention to leave. In fact, Barbara's reluctance to assist Mario as an anesthetist during the boy's brain surgery is enough for André to put two and two together.

Mario's girlfriend is another pawn on the chessboard, since she makes Barbara realize that Mario needs surgery by conveniently informing Barbara that her boyfriend has become emotionally numb after his suicide attempt. We are reminded of Roger Ebert's Law of Economy of Characters: "All characters in a movie are necessary to the story - even those who do not seem to be". (And a propos of André's worries about Mario's surgery, I would add the Self Fulfilling Prophecy Law: whenever a character has a bad feeling that something is going to happen, there's no way for it not to happen.)

But the ineluctability of the plot becomes less surprising, once we realize that it is in perfect tune with the film's ill-concealed, ideologically suspect sympathy for East Germany. Sure, we are shown the harassment by the Stasi (including the particularly hateful cavity searches), the citizen's hostility, the economic straits. The small country town, nevertheless, with its modest but efficient hospital (there are a laboratory for analysis and a small library, too) and its monotonous yet decent lifestyle (Petzold shows us a brief piano performance and even a sort of art lesson), is a not-so-veiled positive symbol for East Germany. One cannot help but recall also the scene where the Stasi officer is shown at his wife's deathbed, which translates into the not-too-subtle message "Stasi officers have a heart, too" (which, by the way, is certainly true). West Germany, instead, is hinted at with a series of mundane objects symbolizing Capitalism: a carton of cigarettes, nylons, a wedding catalog. Petzold doesn't seem so much concerned with stressing the importance of freedom, rather embracing a weaselly form of OstalgieBarbara's sacrifice allows him to highlight some positive aspects of life in the DDR without having to face the contradictions that a more arbitrary choice on the part of his heroin would entail.

Although from a biased perspective, the film undeniably succeeds in rendering the atmosphere of suspicion and menace that characterized the DDR's Communist regime. Particularly effective is also the moment when Barbara and Jörg meet in the wood, where a beautiful sequence of alternate shots taken from diametrically opposite points of view effectively illustrates the distance that separates them. Said scene act as a counterpart of another one showing Barbara and André riding their bikes along parallel paths. My favorite sequence, though, is when Barbara helplessly stares at the ground after Stella has been taken away by the Stasi: a hope-bearing sunlight suddenly breaking through the clouds brings the charged emotion of a serendipitous event.

If nothing else, Barbara reminds us that choosing a challenging subject is no guarantee for a challenging movie, and that a honest approach is essential in reopening old wounds.

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