Barbara (2012 film)

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Barbara (2012 film).jpg
Film poster
Directed by Christian Petzold
Written by Christian Petzold
Harun Farocki
Starring Nina Hoss
Ronald Zehrfeld
Jasna Fritzi Bauer
Mark Waschke
Rainer Bock
Music by Stefan Will
Cinematography Hans Fromm
Edited by Bettina Böhler
Release dates
  • 11 February 2012 (2012-02-11) (Berlin)
Running time
105 minutes
Country Germany
Language German
Box office $3.1 million[1]

Barbara is a 2012 German drama film directed by Christian Petzold. The film competed at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival in February 2012,[2] where Petzold won the Silver Bear for Best Director.[3] The film was selected as the German entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards, but it did not make the final shortlist.[4]


East Germany in 1980: Barbara (Nina Hoss) is a chain-smoking physician whom we meet as she is arriving for her first day at a small rural hospital near the Baltic Sea. She had been at the prestigious Charité hospital in East Berlin but, after she'd filed an "Ausreiseantrag" – an official request to leave East Germany – she had been incarcerated and then transferred to this small town where she is still monitored by the Stasi. Twice in the film, we see the Stasi punish Barbara for the hours in which they cannot find her, by searching her house, strip-searching and cavity-searching her.

In her new job, she works in pediatric surgery, a department led by chief physician André Reiser. Reiser eventually tells her a story (whose veracity she questions) of how he too had lost his job at a more prestigious hospital in Berlin – in his case because he was responsible for an accident with an incubator that left two premature infants blind. The Stasi had agreed to keep it quiet if he agreed to relocate to the provincial hospital and to work for them. So Reiser reports on suspect people, which now includes Barbara, which explains for us why we first saw Reiser observing her arrival in the first scene while in the company of the same Stasi officer who oversees her monitoring.

By this point, Barbara has told Reiser (even though she is certain he already knows) that, after she said she wanted to leave, they told her, "The factory workers and farmers gave you an education, and now you have to pay them back." She asks if his job is to make her reconsider her request to leave the country, and Reiser says, "That's not incorrect."

As the story proceeds, Reiser is increasingly impressed by Barbara's conscientious and heartful doctoring (presumably also by a certain mystery about her as well as her striking beauty). Early on, when the police deliver Stella, a young runaway from a hard labour camp, kicking and screaming, to the hospital for a fourth time, Reiser thinks Stella is malingering. Barbara intervenes and orders removal of the restraints on the patient, readily diagnosing her with meningitis which no one had picked up. Reiser stands corrected and appreciates how she takes care of Stella. During her extended recovery, Stella develops a strong attachment to Barbara, whose welcome bedside manner includes reading the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Stella. Stella is pregnant and wants to raise the child, but if she stays in East Germany, they will take the child away from her. What Stella wants is to escape from the country and to have her child in a new land, and she implores Barbara to take her with her. However, they cannot find grounds for keeping Stella longer, to allow time for a plan, and soon she is being returned against her will to the labour camp.

As the two doctors spend more and more time together, Reiser begins making romantic overtures, which she rebuffs, at first coldly and gradually more gently, even while Barbara is impressed by Reiser in turn. He has built a laboratory, to test samples on-site, and he has created his own serums with which to treat patients. While showing her his lab and offering it for her use, Reiser expounds on a print on the lab wall, of Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, one of many moments in which the two doctors discover increasing layers of shared sensibilities they have toward their profession, their patients, and the world they live in.

Meanwhile, we see Barbara make secretive bicycle treks (always barely staying erect in the gusty Baltic Sea winds) first to a place to stash her own secretly received funds for escape and second to the woods where she meets with her West German lover Jörg, who has been supplying her with prized goods from the West and is preparing for her escape. When she meets him for a second rendezvous in an "Interhotel" (an East-German hotel for foreigners), he offers to move to East Germany to live with her but when she contests the notion as untenable, he tells her of his finalised plan for her escape - the following weekend: he has arranged for a sailor to pick her up in a small boat in the Baltic Sea and take her the short distance to Denmark. He comments that her fatigue will find relief once in Denmark, as she will not need to work because he can support them both.

Just one day before her planned departure, with a second critical, suicidal patient, Mario, bringing the two doctors together and working overtime again, Barbara discovers while on duty that Mario has not been recovering from his suicide attempt as well as they thought and requires brain surgery; she tracks Reiser down on his day off so as to inform him of the urgency of surgery. She finds him at, of all places, the home of the very Stasi agent who has been her tormenter, treating his wife who is dying of cancer. As they drive back to the hospital, she probes the conscience of this doctor colleague who can find it in himself to give medical service to an "arsehole." When Reiser finds a surgeon who will travel to their hospital that same night - the same night of her planned escape – to perform the surgery and insists she be the anaesthesiologist, she defers but as he persists and asks "Don't you want to be there?," she says - with a powerful non-verbal display of torn loyalty which seems to surprise herself – that, yes, she does. At this point, we feel Barbara's quandary and considerable inner turmoil over her decision and the die she is about to cast regarding a fate - an escape – that at the film's outset was unquestioned for her.

Following her agreement to be there for the surgery, yet still planning her escape, Barbara accepts Reiser's invitation to let him cook a lunch for her at his home on the same day. As she browses his extensive library of medical stories, while he shows the relish of an inspired chef, he recounts for her his favourite story from a book he then gives her, Ivan Turgenev's A Sportsman's Sketches. The story he shares is about an ugly old doctor who treats a dying young woman. She has never made love, but in light of the truth and beauty the story places on achieving intimacy in life, she takes the ugly doctor on as her imagined lover. When Reiser finally tells Barbara what his eyes have been conveying for a long while, that he is happy to have her living there, she kisses him but then pulls away and returns to her own house to continue preparations for her escape.

During this time, Stella has found an occasion to flee the labour youth detention programme again and run away in search of Barbara. She finally stumbles on to Barbara's doorstep the very night of her intended escape by sea. Barbara treats her wounds and takes her to the shore where the escape plan will proceed, writing a note to accompany Stella that is presumably addressed to Jörg, saying why she has chosen to have Stella replace her in the escape. A man in a small liferaft comes to pick Barbara up, but Barbara ushers Stella to the boat instead. Barbara returns to the hospital and joins André at the critical patient's bedside, suggestive that she will stay on as a partner with Reiser, in more ways than one.


Critical reception[edit]

Currently, the film has a rating of 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 38 reviews and an average score of 7.8/10.[5]

Writing in The Guardian, film critic Peter Bradshaw said of Barbara: "The weird oppression and seediness of the times is elegantly captured, and Hoss coolly conveys Barbara's highly strung desperation." Bradshaw awarded the film four stars out of five.[6] The New York Times designated Barbara a critics' pick. In her review, Manohla Dargis said of the film: "Barbara is a film about the old Germany from one of the best directors working in the new: Christian Petzold. For more than a decade Mr. Petzold has been making his mark on the international cinema scene with smart, tense films that resemble psychological thrillers, but are distinguished by their strange story turns, moral thorns, visual beauty and filmmaking intelligence."[7] Steven Rea wrote that "Christian Petzold's masterfully hushed, suspenseful thriller percolates with dread....Hoss, wearing her blond hair pulled back tight, and wearing an expression of inscrutable melancholy, gives a performance that doesn't feel like a performance at all. Her Barbara is absolutely real, and absolutely trapped. The film is aching, and exquisite."[8]

Film scholar Christina Gerhardt, in her review of Barbara, wrote: "Photographic choices, such as frequent medium-to-long shots, level framing, and long takes, combine to create a slow-moving film, with an emotional reserve, but palpable feelings simmering beneath the surface."[9] On a similar note, in the Chicago Sun-Times, Sheila O'Malley concluded, "This is well-trod ground for Petzold, but never has it been so fully realized, so palpable, as in 'Barbara.'"[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Barbara". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2 November 2012. 
  2. ^ "Press Release, 9th Jan". 9 January 2012. Retrieved 9 January 2012. 
  3. ^ "Prizes of the International Jury 2012". Berlinale. 2012-02-19. Retrieved 2012-02-19. 
  4. ^ "Germany's Oscar entry is Christian Petzold's Barbara". Screendaily. Retrieved 2012-08-31. 
  5. ^ "Barbara Movie Reviews". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved 23 December 2012. 
  6. ^ Bradshaw, Peter (27 September 2012). "'Barbara - review'". The Guardian. Retrieved 18 December 2012. 
  7. ^ Dargis, Manohla (20 December 2012). "'Pushed and Pulled, a Doctor Wants a Way Out'". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 December 2012. 
  8. ^ "'Barbara' portrays life behind Iron Curtain". philly-archives. Retrieved 4 February 2016. 
  9. ^ Gerhardt, Christina (October 2012). "'Winning a (Hi)story out of Places': Christian Petzold's Barbara". The Brooklyn Rail. Retrieved 24 December 2012. 
  10. ^ Sheila O'Malley (6 March 2013). "Barbara". Retrieved 4 February 2016. 

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