Despite any misgivings her other co-workers may have about Barbara, there's no denying her skill as a physician. When a wild teenage girl named Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), a runaway from a nearby workhouse, is brought in, Andre assumes she's faking it, as she has done before. But Barbara sees the truth of the matter and assumes a protective role over Stella. In a country known for its heartless rigidity, and in spite of her own ambitions, Barbara has compassion for this poor girl.
Meanwhile, she continues to plan -- secretly, cautiously -- her own defection to the West. Careful to avoid scrutiny from Andre or the Stasi (who keep popping up like gophers), Barbara plots with her lover, Jorg (Mark Waschke), a dapper man whose connections are mysterious but who has some freedom to travel between West and East Germany.
That's often the difference between drama and melodrama, and Petzold clearly prefers the former: no hysterics, a subdued sound mix, sparse outside music, and very little extraneous camera movement. Barbara doesn't do anything to draw attention to itself, and it doesn't underline the human quandaries at the center of the story, deep and compelling though they are. Instead, the film builds slowly to its conclusion, as subtly powerful as it is inevitable. Can a person find happiness under such dour, repressive circumstances as existed in East Germany at this time, without totally giving in and swallowing the government Koolaid? Or must you resign yourself to accepting certain unpleasant realities? And where is the line between giving up and making do? The answers to these questions, as explored here, might be either distressing or heartening, depending on your point of view.
Written and directed by Christian Petzold; director of photography, Hans Fromm; edited by Bettina Böhler; music by Stefan Will; production design by K. D. Gruber; costumes by Anette Guther; produced by Florian Koerner von Gustorf and Michael Weber; released by Adopt Films. In German, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.
WITH: Nina Hoss (Barbara), Ronald Zehrfeld (Andre), Jasna Fritzi Bauer (Stella), Mark Waschke (Jörg) and Rainer Bock (Klaus).