East Germany in 1980 really must have been a dystopian hell on earth. In the film Barbara, a doctor is exiled from Berlin for a minor offense and forced to work in a small town in the hinterlands. She’s subjected to round the clock conspicuous surveillance, and the not so secret police also search her apartment and force her to submit to cavity searches on a regular basis. So it is understandable that she is not all that open and trusting. Anyone she meets could turn her in and have her sent to an even worse place. One of her patients, a young girl named Stella is from one of those places that she fears, a forced labor prison Barbara refers to as a death camp. She doesn’t want to release the girl who is pregnant, to send her and her baby to their certain deaths, but she is forced to let her go.
Meanwhile, Barbara’s boyfriend is working on getting her out of the country, having sympathetic intermediaries give her money and coming to meet her with instructions for a daring nighttime escape. She knows that the slightest mistake could seal her fate, and every moment is a tension filled balancing act, between trying to seem like things are normal and wanting to scream at the abnormalness of everything in her current life. Another doctor at the hospital tries to befriend her. He’s young and good looking, and he opens up to her about his past and how he himself got exiled to this backwater, and as much as you (and she) want to believe him and trust him, in this East German upside down world, anyone could inform on you, and no one is trustworthy, so Barbara keeps her distance.
Barbara is reminiscent of another wonderful German film, 2007 Oscar-winner The Lives of Others. It elicits the same claustrophobia. You are left to wonder how anyone lived through that period and stayed sane. But this is a much quieter film, though equally affective. The lead actress Nina Hoss is perfect as a woman trying to make it through her days without giving anything away that might get her in trouble, and the other doctor played by Ronald Zehrfeld is so earnest you really want him to turn out to be a good guy. I won’t give away how it all turns out, but I will say, it is worth your while to see it and find out for yourself. It is a great little film.