Thursday, August 13, 2015

Christian Petzold | Barbara

standing up to the wild winds
by Douglas Messerli

Christian Petzold and Harun Farocki (screenplay), Christian Petzold (director) Barbara / 2012

One of the wonders of Christian Petzold’s film is how he takes quite simple stories and spins them into psychological and moral fables, and his 2012 film, Barbara, is no exception. Barbara (Nina Hoss), punished by the East German police, the Stasi, for applying to leave the country is  forced to resign her post in on the East Berlin’s best hospitals, the Charité, and move to an isolated Baltic provincial clinic.

     There she is put under the direction of the chief physician of the Pediatric ward, André Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld), who it is clear from the earliest scenes, provides information to the Stassi, including spying on his new charge. But from those first scenes we also recognize that Reiser is, at heart, a good man and a highly caring physician, who we perceive is intrigued and attracted to the resistant and somewhat mysterious Barbara.

     Barbara has reasons for her mysteries. In love with a West German, Jörg (Mark Waschke), she is planning an escape to the West, and, in visiting an outlying restaurant, receives a package of foreign currency so that she can pay her way to freedom when the time comes. That adventure, which leads to a late-night return to her newly assigned apartment, ends in a visit from the Stasi head (Rainer Bock) and his associates, including a woman who strip searches the doctor.
     Meanwhile, despite her cold demeanor toward him, Reiser is impressed by the new surgeon’s abilities, particularly after a young girl, Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), having attempted to escape from a labor camp, is brought in by the Stasi. Reiser, who has encountered the young rebel three times before, diagnoses her simply as a malingerer, but Barbara, demanding the police release her, quickly perceives the girl as perhaps suffering from meningitis, which, after tests, proves to be true. The child is also pregnant, and wants to have the baby, but knows that in East Germany it will be aborted. 
     Barbara nurses the child to health, reading passages from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to her, again impressing the head physician with her caring ways, while Barbara, in turn, grows increasingly impressed by Reiser, who, without the proper facilities, has nonetheless built his own in-house laboratory to prevent the long delays when blood and serum is sent to other labs for analysis.  Indeed, despite her justified fears of the kindly doctor—Barbara  observes him watching her from his car several times—she begins to grudgingly admire his methods. But her mood again shifts when Stella, having healed, is suddenly returned, against her pleas, to the labor camp.

     Interludes in the woods with her lover Jörg and an overnight meeting with him in a Interhotel (a guest spot for non-East German tourists)—despite a rather unpleasant glimpse into what her life might be like in the West—make it clear, however, that Barbara is determined to escape. Another late-show up at her apartment (she has been unburying the money she has previously hidden) results in another visit from the Stasi, and another strip-search. Her escape is planned for the next weekend.

      Another seemingly abused child, Mario, who has attempted suicide, brings Barbara and Reiser together yet again. After a visit to the child by friends, who report that Mario speaks only of the food he is eating, while saying nothing about what brought to the hospital, Barbara becomes convinced that Mario may be suffering from brain damage. Barbara seeks out, on his day off, the head doctor, only to find him caring for the wife of the Stasi leader. The woman is evidently dying from cancer, an incident that both angers Barbara while simultaneously forcing her to recognize Reiser’s deep humanity. The situation is, in fact, at the heart of this film, which is very much about the tensions between duty and personal freedoms. And soon after, Reiser tells her his own history, wherein he reveals that he too, once worked at a prestigious East German hospital, but after the accidental blinding of two babies (the attending nurse caring from them within a prenatal unit, mistook Celsius for a Fahrenheit setting), he was sent to the provinces, the incident covered up only if he promised to keep an eye on others for the Stasi. Barbara, as well as the viewer, does quite know whether or not to believe his story, but, if it is so, we realize that he is in a position not so very different from Barbara’s. Indeed, a luncheon where Reiser fixes a ratatouille while speaking to her about a Chekov story reveals his intelligence and social scales.

      Determined to operate on Mario, he asks Barbara to serve as the anesthesiologist on the very same night she is scheduled to escape. When she equivocates, he challenges her, “Don’t you want to be there?” which forces her to choose, quite obviously, between her moral responsibility as a doctor and her personal well-being. 
      Nonetheless, Barbara prepares as if she were still planning to escape and, when, soon after, Stella, having escaped the work camp once again, appears at her doorstep, Barbara, after caring for the girl’s wounds, takes her to the beach, where, on schedule, the life-raft shows up to ferry her across the straits to Denmark. 
      Suddenly attaching  a note to Stella’s body, Barbara places the girl in the tiny raft as it sails off, she turning back, clearly, to join Reiser in his operation and—most probably—in his attempts to make meaning in his life. 
      Although her exchange with Stella might not have been expected, we have known all along that despite her quiet determination to find a new life away from the dire political conditions of her current life, that Barbara’s curt dismissal of those around her (even on the first day at work, she chooses to sit at a lunch table apart from all of her peers), that it was only a ruse to hide her own emotional sympathies. As she has, throughout Petzold’s beautiful film, stood up time and again, bicycle in hand, to the strong gales of the Baltic wind, so will Barbara continue to be a strong force in this isolated community, perhaps even helping the gentle Reiser eventually free himself from the ugly dictates of the Stasi.

Los Angeles, August 13, 2015

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