A story of love and subterfuge in 1980 East Germany that never quite accelerates into an outright thriller, “Barbara” reps another assured collaboration between director Christian Petzold and his main muse, actress Nina Hoss. Credibly capturing the bleakness of life in the German Democratic Republic without indulging in miserablist excess, this wise and incisively crafted drama brings simmering intelligence and a dry, sardonic compassion to bear on its tale of two doctors slowly worming their way into each other’s hearts and minds. Result is likely too subtle to significantly expand Petzold’s audience, though fests and arthouse admirers should prove appreciative.
Cleanly composed picture finds Petzold working in a subdued register perfectly in step with the private longings and thought processes of his equally circumspect characters. Chief among them is Barbara (Hoss), a doctor from Berlin who’s been relegated to a provincial outpost for some perceived misdeed that, like many background details here, is never fully articulated. Steely, sullen and withdrawn from her new colleagues, despite the pleasant overtures of lead physician Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), Barbara looks to flee the GDR for Denmark with her West German lover (Mark Waschke), who crosses the boundary for the occasional woodland tryst.
What keeps Barbara going, even as it threatens to complicate her future plans, is her professional acumen and genuine concern for her patients. She bonds easily with Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), a troubled teenager who has contracted meningitis and, even more problematically under the circumstances, turns out to be pregnant. As Barbara and Andre discuss treatment options and lab techniques, they suss each other out through a delicate dance of words, glances and flickers of emotion, rooted in mutual attraction as well as mutual mistrust.
Rather than overexaggerate the everyday tyranny of life in this socialist state, Petzold uses the ever-shifting parameters of Barbara and Andre’s relationship to make his most salient observations. The script is minutely attuned to the ways that, for people living under a constant veil of suspicion, the rites of courtship — questions, friendly assumptions, a surprise act of kindness — can be indistinguishable from the language of interrogation and intimidation. By the time Andre confesses to Barbara why he himself was reassigned to a countryside medical practice, the potential costs of telling the truth, if it is indeed the truth, have been made all too clear.
The film is hardly coy about the reasons why Barbara in particular has so much to fear; Petzold makes a point of showing the same car pull up regularly outside her window, as well as the Stasi agents who pop by every so often for impromptu strip-searches. Yet even these grim moments are shot in a brisk, clipped manner that refuses to linger on misery. A similar level of discretion informs scenes of Andre and Barbara administering injections to their patients, as if to underscore the idea that pain and persecution can be borne with dignity, a clear notion of purpose and, crucially, a fatalistic sense of humor.
Giving this reserved film much of its drive is Hoss, who turns in another outstanding performance in her fifth outing with Petzold (after “Something to Remind Me,” “Wolfsburg,” “Yella” and “Jerichow”). Expertly revealing layers of warmth and humanity beneath an initially frozen glare, she’s well matched by Zehrfeld, whose soft-eyed Andre remains just unreadable enough to suggest ambiguity of motive.
The film’s awareness of grace in the midst of pervasive hardship is borne out by Hanks Fromm’s immaculate lensing; the harsh, red-orange glare cast by street lights in nighttime scenes is dispelled by beautiful images of Barbara riding her bicycle during the day through the windswept German countryside. Eschewing obvious ’80s period detail, K.D. Gruber’s production design and Anette Guther’s costumes are of a piece with the characters’ own consummate but low-key professionalism.