Wednesday, 5 December 2012


It would seem that UK audiences for German stories (films) have been more commonly drawn to political fare. The Communist era in East Berlin, in particular, has given rise to Good Bye Lenin (2003), The Lives of Others (2007) and now the 1980’s set Barbara (2012).[1]

Barbara Wolff.

All those that take up the ‘host’ mantle for the Robert Burns Centre Film Theatre Film Club are enthusiastic cineaste and always do their best to make each Monday evening rather special. This week we were fortunate to have a host who has great background knowledge of Germany and especially Berlin.  Thanks to Tony Barbour our enjoyment of Barbara (2012) was greatly enhanced, not only did he give a well informed introduction but returned after the coffee break to enthral us with tales of his life and travels in Berlin before and after the Wall. Its evenings like this that really makes the RBC Film Club worthwhile.

 Barbara Wolff’s story is of a woman torn between her Hippocratic oath and an intolerable autocratic regime. Set in the German Democratic Republic in the early 1980’s it involves a young doctor who has been exiled to an unnamed backwater to work in the local hospital. Her crime is that she applied for an exit visa so she could leave East Germany to join her West German lover. Living under constant surveillance from Stasi officer Klaus Schutz she appears as being aloof and wary but in truth she has no idea who she can trust. Even the head doctor, Andre Reiser, who its obvious has feeling for her; she is unable to confide in. The only person she does bond with is a teenage patient called Stella who has escaped from a local socialist work camp and is suffering from meningitis and who, it is discovered, is pregnant.

Barbara with Andre Reiser
Directed and written by German film director Christian Petzold, this his first period drama won him the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival and has been chosen as the German entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the Academy Awards in February 2013. The film stars Nina Hoss who has previously worked with the director on five other occasions including Yella (2007) for which she won the Berlin Silver Bear for Best Actress, Rainer Block as Klaus Schutz a German actor you will probably know from Inglourious Basterds (2009) and as the doctor in Haneke’s White Ribbon (2009) with Ronald Zehrfeld, who was brought up in East Berlin, playing Andre.  

This film is an example of how good modern German cinema can be. It’s a very sad and moving film helped by the intensity of Hoss’s brilliant portrayal of a character that can hide her feeling from all those around her but not the cinema audience and Petzold’s underplayed direction.  The highlight for me is the beautifully constructed final scene between Hoss and Zehrfeld where simple facial movements tell you all you need to know. The film is totally realistic and it’s period feel, using soft colours and natural sounds, totally authentic. This is a movie where the fear of living under the treat of a ‘knock on the door’ is undoubtedly convincing. 

[1] Charles Grant Sight and Sound Dec 2012.

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