East Germany, 1980. Barbara is a doctor who works in a hospital in a small provincial town. This is her punishment for attempting to emigrate to the West. She used to work in the biggest hospital in Berlin. Now she is kept under constant surveillance, secluded in the country, with nobody to trust. She does her job systematically, patiently, and she waits. We are waiting, too, patiently, as the tension builds.
Played superbly by Nina Hoss (a great actor with wonderful roles in films such as Phoenix, and Jerichow, both directed by Christian Petzold, and Homeland series), Barbara, the title character, lives an entrapped life controlled by others, but she never shows fear, her inner turmoil hidden under her inscrutable face. “It was a role where I knew there would be no possibility of talking much, to explain her,” Nina Hoss revealed in an interview for Film Comment after the film’s release, in 2012. “I would have to do a different kind of work, to make it interesting, her being silent, but always being present. I had to create a backstory. It was very crucial for this part, that I knew why she tries to hide her true self. I thought she was [originally] a very lively, positive person.”
Barbara indeed doesn’t talk much, doesn’t smile much. She just does her job, remains impassive every time she has her apartment searched, is reluctant in making conversation with the hospital’s charismatic director and colleague doctor André (Ronald Zehrfeld). Is he a friend or an enemy? She lives every day on the watch-out, always looking over her shoulder or out the window. The threat can come from anywhere. “I talked with people a lot,” Nina further disclosed in the interview. “What was it like, this feeling that you can’t talk freely? You had to go into the forest to talk, because sometimes it was your husband who spied on you. The subtleness of that threat was even more horrible than the obvious one, where you’re already in the grip of the state, interrogations and prisons. That is another horror. But what infected the society was everywhere, and you didn’t see it. And that’s what they all described. As well as all the beauty, and that’s what we wanted to portray, the area in all its vibrant colours. Not gray. It must be hard to leave that country. It’s hard for Barbara to make this decision.”
The vibrant, rich, saturated colours are the first thing you notice, revealing a pronounced natural beauty. The lush, green forests and surroundings are quivering, filled with life and movement, and in striking contrast to the cold human relationships and the silence and quiet fear that envelop the characters. The film has a mood, an atmosphere that takes you to a world led by paranoia and constant uncertainty. It does it subtly, it’s an underlying feeling, very unsettling and very real.
Another thing you notice right away is the character herself and her costumes. There is nothing obvious about them, just the contrary. It’s the feeling she projects. It’s not just because of her statuesque figure, but she somehow looks different, despite her wearing navy blue and other subdued colours, her look resembling a uniform. Maybe because she was forced to leave Berlin and she doesn’t plan to stay here long. She took what she felt most comfortable in, what was most inconspicuous. But she also represents a modern woman, coming from the big city, with a lover from the West, planning to flee the country, and that’s also something costume designer Anette Guther had in mind when she created the wardrobe, as she recalled in her interview with Céleste Durante for her podcast, Profession: Costumière.
Barbara was the first period film for Anette Guther, who has made eight films with Christian Petzold, a director who understands how film costume works, aesthetically and psychologically, and who trusted her with the costumes. Anette Guther’s work on the film involved a lot of research in libraries, photos from the personal archive of one of her assistants, who had grown up in East Germany and whose mother had been a nurse, and watching a lot of documentaries. Another source of inspiration was a lady in Berlin who had a boutique where she sold high-end fashion clothes, such as Yves Saint Laurent, which were not otherwise available in Communist East Germany. Some of the costumes were made, like the shoes, and the costume designer was careful not to create something too fashionable, because she believes that “if you see a film ten years after it’s made, it should still look classy and good.”
I have just watched this film, ten years after its release, and it looks classy and realistic. Barbara’s uniform look very much sums up the context in which the character lives, her restraint and isolation. Which is why when Barbara goes to the woods to meet her lover from the West, her look, a halter-neck, silky beige flowing dress that falls just below the knees, is so striking, even surreal – the shot from behind when she steps into the forest looks depicted from a fairy tale. It’s like a glimpse into her past, a moment of respite that she allows herself amidst the strain of her day-to-day life governed by angst and repressed feelings. That’s such a beautiful and timeless look, especially that it’s kept understated by the way she wears the oversised cardigan on top. A modern woman who is ahead of her times, but not of her surroundings. Nature and character complement each other. It becomes her ally, because it can’t betray her.