“We didn’t want to film a portrait of an oppressed nation and then juxtapose it with love as this innocent, pure and liberating force. We didn’t want any symbols. You just end up decoding them and what’s left is what you knew all along.”
The incipient romance presented in Barbara (Dir. Christian Petzold, 2012) is far from innocent, conducted as it is in interrogative exchanges loaded with double meaning and uncertain intent. Petzold has spoken of the inspiration he took from the Bogart/Bacall classic To Have And Have Not (Dir. Howard Hawks, 1944), with its depiction of a burgeoning love affair in wartime Martinique under the Vichy regime. In both films, the terms of courtship are determined by the all-enveloping milieu the two leads have long since become inured to. The difference is that the dance performed by Barbara (Nina Hoss) and André (Ronald Zehrfeld) is more tense with suspicion than taut with sexual tension. Petzold, meanwhile, doesn’t allow his film to become freighted with allegorical dead weight and the early-established sense of everyday life in Barbara qualifies the insidious presence of Stasi control.
Petzold is perhaps the most prominent of the Berlin School of German filmmakers, initially connected by their common ties to the Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie and linked further by a perceived opposition to the kind of contemporary German filmmaking most familiar to British and international audiences. The likes of Goodbye Lenin (Dir. Wolfgang Becker, 2003), Downfall (Dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004), The Lives Of Others (Dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006) and The Baader Meinhof Complex (Dir. Uli Edel, 2008) have lately provided English-speaking audiences with a steady stream of populist drama, largely preoccupied with post-war, pre-unification Germany.
On the other hand, Petzold’s oeuvre to date – including The State I Am In (2000), Yella (2007) and Jerichow (2008) – has focussed on contemporary, urban Germany with a quality of coldness approaching frigidity, “seeking new, truer images for post-Wall Germany and its suppressed tensions”2. Petzold has previously forsworn period filmmaking, explaining, “You have so much to reconstruct – the music, for example, the everyday objects, and then, in the end, it so often comes off looking like a caricature.”3 It is unusual therefore that, with Barbara, he should attempt to conjure the world of rural East Germany in the early 1980s.
Barbara is the director’s sixth film (not counting his TV work, of which his contribution to the Dreileben trilogy screened at GFF12) and his fifth collaboration with star Nina Hoss. For Barbara, Petzold was inspired by his own heritage and memories of East Germany as a child (his parents fled to the west before he was born, later taking holidays in the GDR). The director inherited his parents’ desire to fit into their new surroundings, but also their sense of estrangement. However, as Petzold has explained, “I did not want to reconstitute the GDR, my film was not about reenactment and high-precision historical drama.”4
Although Barbara’s dilemma is culturally and historically specific, her motivations and behaviour largely defined and dictated by her environment, Petzold’s film has a quality of immediacy rather than distance. Barbara transcends historical specificity partly because it initially resists too-obvious indicators of time and location. Instead, Barbara traverses a rural landscape happily lacking the drained tones and coded grays audiences have come to expect from cinematic depictions of the GDR.
Cycling, furtively concealing items under rocks, refusing social overtures (her distance taken for snootiness) – if it wasn’t for the fruitless though nonetheless disturbing interventions of the Stasi, it would be easy to take a child’s view of this milieu – why does this woman behave so strangely? Barbara is so often alone in nature that the strangeness of the behaviour inspired in her is foregrounded. The effect is to expose the pervasive psychological grip the Stasi held on ordinary life. Petzold notes, “All that fear and suppression was happening between the people. That’s where it worked. All the beauty, love and liberty were poisoned by mistrust.”5
Motives are suspect from the outset. A key exchange finds André sharing an intimate and disturbing story regarding his fall from professional grace. He’s apparently laying himself bare, but a sceptical Barbara responds by interrogating him on the details of his story. In replying, André’s tone is not wounded, or reproachful, but instead approximates resignation – “Was my story too long? Too neat?” Barbara still resists his overtures, as she resists the opportunity to empathise with the Stasi officer whose wife is revealed to have terminal cancer.
Later, André recommends a book of short stories – Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches – and tells her of his favourite, The District Doctor, in which an “ugly old doctor” treats a terminally ill young woman, who professes her love for him. The casual relation of the story is charged with almost imperceptible provocation – upon the death of his patient, the doctor returns to his wife. He has been merely a cipher for the girl, allowing her to project the love she has never and will never have. So is André to be Barbara’s cipher, a stand-in before she returns to her ‘real’ life? Or is it vice versa? Perhaps tellingly, Turgenev’s tale is as much about the doctor as the patient – he willingly, to his apparent shame, participates in the charade after becoming infatuated with the young girl. Zehrfeld’s subtle performance has by this point substantially humanised the potentially duplicitous André, in our eyes and, crucially, Barbara’s. His story is superficially inconsequential, but on another level is a question that she must answer. Therefore the moment when they kiss has been thoroughly prefaced subliminally though never vocally, and when André says, carelessly, “I’m so happy you’re here,” his words are enough to precipitate their sudden embrace.
However, when Barbara finally elects to stay, it’s not the triumph of love, nor a fatalistic capitulation nor, least of all, a renunciation of the West. Barbara chooses self-determination (an early indicator is her silence as her erstwhile lover explains she won’t need to work once she’s escaped) and as she gives up her chance of escape, there’s a sense of relief and a shift in the balance of power, though the status quo ostensibly remains. It could easily be tragic, but instead feels quietly triumphant.
Sean Welsh, October 2012
This article was originally commissioned as a programme note by GFT.
1. Christian Petzold, Director’s Statement on Barbara
2. Nick Hasted, ‘In The Shadow Of The Wall’, Sight and Sound, October 2012, p48
3. Christian Petzold, interviewed by Anke Westphal
4. Christian Petzold, interviewed by Bénédicte Prot
5. Christian Petzold, Director’s Statement on Barbara