Much like the title character herself, 'Barbara' is a mystery wrapped in a pensive blanket of defeatism, yet frank and headstrong enough to suggest a small spark of life hidden deep within. If that's too abstract or ambiguous, then the film itself will be all the more challenging. With hair pulled back in a tight bun and deep, dark rings around her eyes, the otherwise lovely Nina Hoss of 'The White Masai' and 'We Are the Night' plays the eponymous character with a chillingly cold detachment and a rather heartbreaking sense of passivity. She's endlessly absorbed and brooding but also deeply lonely, as if she lost any notion of hope and permanently succumbed to a nihilistic outlook on life.
And yet, we're oddly fascinated by her, growing curious and wondering what events led to this woman clearly making no effort to hide her despondency. We want to probe deeper, ask questions, and hopefully know her better. The same could be said of the film, visually told in an uncomplicated, straightforward manner that largely feels effortless. Director Christian Petzold places the audience at a distance from his protagonist — he co-wrote the script with Harun Farocki. A quiet, steady, and artless camera has Hoss's Barbara as cold and detached from us as she is towards others who try to be friendly. By feeling so uninvolving, we become observers of her plight rather than partakers in her struggle.
Set in East Germany 1980, audiences are also at a greater distance because of the period in which the plot takes place. In fact, we're over thirty years removed from relating or understanding Barbara's point of view. For many, those Cold War years of living under constant surveillance and fear in the Eastern Bloc are a fading memory while for most, it's an unknown and unfamiliar world that it's almost unimaginable. Not that a powerful government would treat its citizens in this way, but actually knowing what it feels like to live under such rule every day is the part that's nearly inconceivable today. And Petzold makes us aware of this fact through his restrained and unpretentious camerawork.
However, through its simplicity, Petzold also makes a riveting and richly complex drama about one woman living a seemingly average life. As we learn bit by bit, we slowly discover a person actually immersed in a perpetual state of apprehension and paranoia while she carefully prepares for an escape from her glum existence, both literally and figuratively. Assigned a new position at a small rural hospital after filing an official request to leave the country — for which she was imprisoned — Barbara's stony frigidness is due to her not knowing who to trust, surrounded by the watchful suspicious eyes of others and the embarrassing searches by a Stasi officer (Rainer Bock). The only person who comes close to being a friend is a fellow physician (Ronald Zehrfeld) also assigned to work that hospital because of a past mistake that still haunts him.
With a patient, withdrawn eye, 'Barbara' builds an air of tension and unease as it portraits a life in East Germany during the Cold War. It's not a tale of survival in the traditional sense, but it is about surviving from one day to the next while surrounded by suspicious eyes. Petzold delivers a motion picture that remarkably generates suspense through the most mundane activities and conversations, a feeling of constant surveillance and the loss of privacy. Nina Hoss's quiet and reserved performance is a haunting portrayal of a defeated woman who takes great measure to hide her hope for escape. And Petzold's direction is an outstanding but challenging complement to her despair and the weight on her shoulders.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Lorber brings 'Barbara' to Blu-ray on a Region Free, BD25 disc inside a blue, eco-elite keepcase. At startup, the disc goes directly to a static screen with only the play option available.
'Barbara' rides unto Blu-ray with a highly pleasing MPEG-2 encode, which is rather surprising. Thankfully, the 1.85:1 image is in excellent condition and terrifically detailed. Fine lines and objects are very well-defined throughout with revealing, lifelike textures in the facial complexions. Each leaf in the tree and blade of grass is distinctly sharp. Individual bricks and rocks can be plainly made out as every imperfection along the walls of buildings is exposed. Every thread and stitch in the various clothing is clearly visible. Contrast is comfortably bright with crisp, brilliant whites while blacks are true and accurate. Shadow details tend to be engulfed by the darker portions of the image, but it's not a terrible loss. The color palette is vivid, with richly saturated primaries, adding a bit of worried irony to the plot, making the high-def video all the better.
Unfortunately, the methodically pensive film arrives with a less than satisfying audio presentation. Debuting with a legacy Dolby Digital mono soundtrack, the soundstage often feels somewhat constrained and limited, most notably during outdoor sequences when characters are surrounded by local wildlife. With all the activity falling squarely in the center, the film lacks a sense of presence and never truly engages the viewer. Thankfully, fidelity and acoustics are in good standing order, exhibiting clean, detailed mids and nice, throaty lows. The design never reaches in the upper ranges, adding to the restricted and narrow imaging. Although dialogue reproduction is well-prioritized, the lossy mix leaves listeners wondering what a lossless track could have afforded.
This is a bare-bones release.
With a patient, withdrawn eye, 'Barbara' builds an aire of tension and unease as it portraits a life in East Germany during the Cold War. Christian Petzold's direction is an outstanding but challenging complement to Nina Hoss's remarkably haunting performance of a defeated woman who takes great measure to hide her hope for escape. The Blu-ray arrives with excellent video but a less than satisfying audio presentation. In the end, this bare-bones release makes for a great rental.