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Indie Focus: ‘Barbara’ captures Cold War life in East Germany

Nina Hoss plays the title role of a freedom-seeking pediatric surgeon in East Germany in 1980 in Christian Petzold's movie "Barbara."
(Hans Fromm / Adopt Films)

A totalitarian state with a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, East Germany was a nation suffused with fear and suspicion. Yet it was also a society in which utopian ideals motivated individual sacrifices in the name of building a better way of life. The new film “Barbara” examines the contradictions of the former German Democratic Republic, transforming the everyday paranoia under the socialist regime into a quietly gripping thriller.

“Barbara” won the Silver Bear prize for director and co-writer Christian Petzold at the Berlin International Film Festival and is Germany’s submission for the foreign-language Academy Award. Having played a circuit of festivals, the film was recently named one of the top five foreign-language films of the year by the National Board of Review and opens in Los Angeles on Dec. 21.

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Set in 1980, the film follows a doctor, Barbara (Nina Hoss, in a riveting performance), who has been sent from a prestigious post in Berlin to a small hospital in the countryside as punishment for having applied for an exit visa to the West. In an atmosphere of suspicious unease, every conversation fraught with tension, Barbara strikes up a relationship with another doctor (Ronald Zehrfeld) even as she thinks he may be informing on her. As she begins to plot an escape, she takes a particular interest in a young female patient. Torn between her sense of self-preservation and her professional duty, Barbara must decide what she values most.

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“For me the German Democratic Republic is a dream which became a nightmare,” said Petzold, 52, recently by phone from Berlin. Born in the West to parents from the East, Petzold spent time in East Germany throughout his youth, perhaps both humanizing its residents for him and cementing his position as a distanced observer. It was a perspective he drew from while working on the script with co-writer Harun Farocki.

“To many people I met [now], when they thought about what happened there in the ‘60s, ‘70s and into the ‘80s, there was a chance at an alternative society which they didn’t realize,” explained Petzold. “There were so many dreams, so many ideas inside this bureaucratic monster of Eastern German socialism which vanished and I think people have started to remember those dreams a little in the last few years.”

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By including something like an unanticipated good along with the more obvious bad in examining life in a police state, Petzold creates a rich portrait of life in East Germany. Even the film’s production design and costuming have substantial style, as Petzold consciously avoided the drab palettes and iconography typically used to portray life in the East.

“It’s a little bit of a different approach,” said Fareed C. Majari, director of the German cultural organization Goethe-Institut Los Angeles of the portrayal of everyday life in “Barbara.” “Here we have a very bleak perspective of the GDR, but you see the human elements. There are not positive elements in the system, but there are positive characters. I don’t think it sees the GDR and the regime in any positive way, but even under the regime the people themselves uphold a certain amount of decency and humanity.”

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Petzold in particular is well suited to this story, noted Majari, as even in earlier films such as 2000’s “The State I Am In,” in which a teenage girl grapples with her parents’ past as left-wing radicals, and 2008’s “Jerichow,” a love triangle also about how foreigners integrate into society, the filmmaker “really intertwines political stories with personal experiences.”

“Barbara” may be Petzold’s first period film, but it is the fifth he has made with Nina Hoss, 37, one of the top actresses in Germany who moves easily between theater and film work.

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For “Barbara,” as he has for most of their collaborations together, Petzold wrote the part specifically for Hoss, showing her pages as he and Farocki were working on the script to get her feedback on the character and story.

“I’m always involved. I don’t write anything, but I ask questions and he changes things,” said Hoss, on the phone recently from Berlin just before taking the stage in Maxim Gorky’s “Children of the Sun.”

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In “Barbara,” the tension of the story comes as much from things that are not spoken as things that are, so the connection and understanding between director and actress was especially important.

“From the outside she has to be strong and invulnerable, but those moments when she’s on her own, there are so many things going on inside her head,” said Hoss. “And inside her there’s a war going on. And you don’t talk that much when that’s going on because there’s not so much to say. You can’t explain it to anyone.

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“And that’s where I think Christian is really a master, to find the courage and the strength to make it so precise, so calm and slow.”

“Barbara” was a hit this year in Germany — Petzold said it was his most successful film, having made nearly $3 million — and as Hoss and Petzold toured the country doing promotion they were both stuck by the diverse responses, some audience members talking of the warm depiction of everyday life, others the portrait of life under a totalitarian regime.

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“It was a compliment for me and for us all that whatever you experienced in that country you find in that movie,” said Hoss. “If you want to see the positive side, you can find it, but also of course the incredible oppression of that state.”

With its tense look at the paranoid surveillance culture of East Germany, “Barbara” does bear passing resemblance to the 2006 German film “The Lives of Others,” which won the foreign-language Academy Award. Yet Petzold’s film works at a more fine-grain level, examining the personal, small-scale dilemmas created for individuals swept up within larger systems.

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“You can compare them, but I don’t think the two films have many similarities,” said Petzold. “At the Berlinale they asked, ‘Is the movie an answer to ‘The Lives of Others?’ And I said, ‘Movies are not answers, they have to be questions.’”

mark.olsen@latimes.com

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