Now showing @ Cornerhouse… Reviewed: Berlin International Film Festival winner Barbara

By John Paul Shammas

This week Berlin International Film Festival winner ‘Barbara’ comes to Cornerhouse.

A sparse drama set in the 1980’s from German director Christian Petzold, ‘Barbara’ is a claustrophobic fairy-tale-like story of physician Barbara (Nina Hoss) who has been sent to work at a remote hospital near the Baltic sea as punishment after expressing her desire to leave Soviet-occupied East Germany.

Petzold lets the tale unravel at a enigmatic pace. Barbara is an emotionally distant lead who’s motives, nor the wider context of the film are initially apparent. Likewise, the emotional connections Barbara makes are sporadic but rarely are they clearly defined.

As Barbara begins to sympathise with a young patient at this secluded hospital, the films tone of mutual suspicion begins to unravel and Barbara begins to find a moral purpose amongst Petzold’s bleak, isolated portrayal of 1980‘s East Germany.

Whilst ‘Barbara’ is a cautionary tale of emotional connections in a tense, repressed environment, Petzold’s storytelling is equally tense and dictatorially repressed. Often we are shown, but not told. The essence of the story is what we can infer from faint glances and sparse exchanges, an occasionally frustrating feature, but essentially characteristic of the films setting.

And if you can suspend a desire for answers or immediacy, and choose rather to embrace the overarching, brooding tone of Petzold’s ‘Barbara’, you will reap the rewards.

The storytelling and magnificent direction both play their cards close to their chests, but this is not a pretense.

For a film that, up until the very last frame, reveals to the audience so little, ‘Barbara’ is an assured and honest display of an individuals alienation within broader societal restraint with Petzold’s vision immensely tangible.

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