'Barbara' Review: Germany Should Have Sent 'Hannah Arendt'

(Germany, 105 min.)
Written and directed by Christian Petzold
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Jasna Fritzi Bauer.
Barbara is a methodical political thriller. The film, written and directed by Christian Petzold, is shrouded in ambiguity. The sense of mystery is palpable, but mostly because one can hardly decipher what the film is actually about.

Barbara, played by a steely and resigned Nina Hoss, is a doctor who is exiled from Berlin to a small town after she is caught requesting exit visas. It’s 1980-somehting and the Iron Curtain has folks in East Germany scared and scattered. Barbara is paranoid that her every move is being watched, so she moves about her small rural town with a skittish scepticism. Everyone could be a spy, even her cranky landlord. Why Barbara needs to look over her shoulder remains unclear, though, as are her motivations for wanting to escape.

Is Barbara a spy? Is she a double agent? Quiet and reserved, Barbara seems ill-suited for small town country living. However, when a young runaway from a socialist camp (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) winds up under the good doctor’s care, some of Barbara’s humanity rises over her frigid surface, as do some of her political inclinations.

The film’s episodic, if meandering, plot helps create an atmosphere of uncertainty, but Barbara will surely baffle audiences that don’t grasp its context. With little perspective and even less backstory, Barbara is an intriguing puzzle for which none of the pieces fit together. Hoss’s strong performance keeps the film engaging, as do Petzold’s murky realism and pacing, but it’s frustrating that Barbara keeps so much of its vital information filed under “Top Secret.”

It’s too bad that audiences less in the know will struggle with putting the film together. Barbara, Germany’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards, shows the danger in consuming a presumably strong film in ignorance of its context. On the other hand, Germany might have moved further in the race—Barbara was not among the nine films that made the Foreign Film Shortlist—had it submitted its stronger and far more accessible contender, Hannah Arendt.
Barbara Sukowa and Janet McTeer in Hannah Arendt
In comparison to Barbara, Hannah Arendt offers an engrossing journey into a politically volatile period of history—the aftermath of the Holocaust—by chronicling in careful detail the circumstances of its philosophical protagonist (played with a tour de force performance by Barbara Sukowa). Hannah Arendt raises profound philosophical questions that can be confronted by any audience since the film, directed by Margarethe von Trotta, always keeps its audience informed. Hannah Arendt doesn’t assume that viewers are already fully informed of Arendt’s concept of “The banality of evil,” so the film embroils the drama with a story that allows its substance to resonate within an intriguing narrative. As a result, academia has never felt so thrillingly cinematic and viewers can debate the banality of evil for hours after seeing the film even if they’ve been unaware of the theory beforehand.

Questions of style and taste can certainly yield different arguments, and one’s appreciation of films such as Barbara or Hannah Arendt may differ depending on when one was born and where one grew up, but the latter film shows how a bit more effort in the writing process can make a film accessible to all. A film should not require so much a priori knowledge in order to admire it. Moreover, a film like Hannah Arendt demonstrates how a film can still be a provocative work of art when it invites the audience to engage with and debate the questions it raises, which is far more satisfying than questioning the purpose of a film itself. Barbara is certainly a good by any comparison; however, it can only be a great film depending on how much research one did beforehand.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Barbara is currently playing in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox. It opens in Ottawa at The ByTowne on January 25th.