In “Barbara,” the title character, a pediatrician named Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss), has just arrived in a provincial hamlet on the Baltic Sea. She’s been exiled there as punishment for applying for an emigration visa to West Berlin from East Germany, where she enjoyed a cushy life of haute splendors and tenure at the important East Berlin university hospital, Charité. Now she’s this long, gorgeous, glamorous blonde in a sleepy town of brunettes, an alien, really. The movie is set in 1980, and her expulsion is overseen by the Stasi, the oppressive East German secret police. Officers drop by to inspect both Barbara’s modest apartment and eventually Barbara herself.
The movie’s quiet power comes from its air of meticulously maintained suspicion. The Stasi might have conscripted André (Ronald Zehrfeld), the brawny chief of the hamlet medical clinic, to pass along intelligence on Barbara. She knows he’s probably watching her, that anyone at the hospital or in her building has been asked to. So she’s boxed in socially. In the cafeteria, she passes a table where André is eating with other doctors — two women — and sits instead with a nurse. The doctors assume Barbara thinks she’s better than they are. Her chilliness certainly creates that possibility. But what Hoss is asked to play — and does play with great skill — is the fine line between self-protection and hauteur.
When Barbara sneaks into a forest, for a carefully arranged liaison with her lover, Jörg (Mark Waschke), a handsome West Berliner, we see that she’s capable of passion and contentment. Otherwise, it’s a life of state-sanctioned solemnity. Jörg is helping Barbara plot her escape to West Berlin, but she’s also becoming fond of some of the teenagers who need the clinic’s help, namely Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), a pregnant roughneck whom the government has put in a labor camp. She, too, dreams of West Germany but has no way out.
Under different political circumstances or under no political circumstances at all, “Barbara” might have been a tidy romantic drama. It might have been “Grey’s Anatomy.” But the suffocation of the Stasi surveillance apparatus imposes a kind of severity upon every look, conversation, and urge. Barbara is forced to live an emotional double life. Even if she’s attracted to André (and she’d be insane not to be), what would acting on that desire mean for her? The director Christian Petzold wrote the script with the documentary filmmaker Harun Farocki, and he maintains an air of existential and humanist suspense. Will Barbara escape? Will she even make sustained eye contact with André?
Petzold’s previous movie was the juicy, preposterous thriller “Jerichow,” which had Hoss as an abused wife hot for a military man. This new movie is better photographed and framed, and the symbols, motifs, and metaphors are more reasonably executed. André gets to prattle on meaningfully about Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp”; Barbara has a hard time forgetting his synopsis of a story from Turgenev’s “A Sportsman’s Sketches”; and the song that plays over the closing credits is Chic’s “At Last I Am Free.”
“Barbara” isn’t nearly as absurd as “Jerichow.” Although the ending comes close. But that’s earned. It’s a real act of personal rebellion dictated as much by screenwriting as by moral necessity. Life under constant inspection and surveillance meant, in part, the suppression of expression. The Stasi always had the dominant ego. What you see in the final minutes is a woman ironically asserting herself over so much deprivation.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.