(Christian Petzold, 2012)
The brilliance of Petzold's work to date is the way he imposes his precisely observed, muscularly realist style upon material that is usually the stuff of thrillers. He uses confident, spacious framing and superbly measured movement of the camera and editing to set a deliberate pace to each of his films. This is solid, near-faultless storytelling, slowly revealing the depths and passions of the characters depicted, detailing the nuances and turns of plot without artifice or trickery.
Barbara may be his best film; a tidy, intense little character drama which hides a gripping, emotionally charged thriller inside its folds like one of the title characters hidden packages.
Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss) is a doctor, sent to work in a clinic in the Provinces of East Germany in 1980. She has applied to leave for the West, and suffered an incarceration and this exile for her sin against Communism. At the clinic, she is monitored for the state by her colleague Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) a sensitive, friendly man with his own history to account for his exile. As their relationship haltingly develops, Barbara is planning her escape to her lover in the West, but her emotional involvement with a couple of young patients makes things more complicated than she would like.
There is absolutely nothing ostentatious or showy about Petzold's work. Every cut and composition seems motivated purely by its value to the story he is telling. There is no generic iconography and no cues: no dramatic or emotive music (only diagetic music, in fact), no scenery chewing, no hamming, no massive plot twists or reversals. Instead he details the quotidian facts of his characters lives and work, and allows these details to build up to something more. The performances are understated and as subtle as the period detailing, which is founded on telling particulars: some wardrobe choices, the ubiquity of cigarettes, the automobiles and landline telephones.
Hoss and Zehrfeld are both quietly brilliant, suggesting their growing attraction (and much more) without doing very much, and Petzold is just as careful in how he underlines the effect of living under the watchful gaze of a Communist state. Everything is subtly effected - what people can buy, where they can work, who they talk to, how they live. It paints a disturbing picture of lives curtailed and bent by state interference without ever proselytzing.
The tension grows as the story progresses and Petzold ties together the various strands neatly and with considerable emotional impact in the last act, which is extremely satisfying, like the film as a whole.