Barbara illuminates the dark side of Cold War East Germany

Nina Hoss in Barbara

Nina Hoss in Barbara.

Times change, and with them the political profile of our world. But here in America, the practice of pigeonholing people with whom one disagrees as the Other – as opposed to making a sincere effort to understand and discuss whatever issue is in contention – never seems to go out of style. Nothing brings this truism home nowadays quite so strongly as reading comments from readers online. It’s a sure way to get depressed and ruin one’s day, and yet it’s hard to stop – rather like picking at a scab.

Indeed, the anonymity of the Internet has fostered a flowering of the classic propaganda technique of the Big Lie: Repeat a falsehood often enough and people will begin to assume that it’s true, no matter how outrageous, just because “everyone says so.” To cite obvious recent examples, people who have convinced themselves that President Obama is a closet Muslim, was born in Kenya or is a “socialist” are unlikely even to look at any evidence to the contrary.

Silly as the latter claim may seem to anyone who actually knows any real-life socialists, that label is interesting insofar as it represents things coming full circle. Fashions do change, in terms of which social out-group gets designated as the evil Other du jour. But the Communists certainly did have a long run, and since the end of the Cold War, none of the subsequent pejorative labels for the Other – feminists, gays, illegal immigrants, to name a few – have managed to stay at the top of the charts for nearly as long.


So now, it seems, the wheel has fully turned, and once again being a left-winger of any stripe has become the definitive put-down. What makes this strange is that the generation most at home on the Internet wasn’t even born yet during the Cold War – nor are most of its members likely to recognize it when they’re using the rhetorical devices that were once seen as crucial components of the Soviet propaganda toolkit. People online complain vociferously about Big Government who never had to live with the fear of the knock on the door in the middle of the night by the secret police.

Russia’s power structure now resembles the Mafia more than a Marxist ideal gone awry. The “Red” Chinese proclaim that “To get rich is glorious” and are kicking America’s butt in world markets. And all-American sports heroes have replaced East German Olympians as the poster boys of steroid abuse. Even James Bond is battling computer hackers instead of the Russians nowadays. So what do the tech-savvy kids of today know from Communists?

Maybe we need a refresher course. One good place to start would be the 2012 German film Barbara, directed by Christian Petzold and currently showing at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck. It’s hard to imagine a more artful, nuanced introduction to the dark side of life in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Set in 1980, Barbara is the story of a young woman doctor (Nina Hoss) who brings down the wrath of government upon herself by having the audacity to apply for a permit to leave the country. Prior to that indiscretion she had been working at a prestigious hospital in East Berlin, the Charité, and become romantically involved with a handsome and successful West Berliner, Jörg (Mark Waschke). But Barbara’s professional reputation can’t save her from being reassigned to a run-down, ill-equipped provincial hospital near the Baltic Sea and a grungy apartment where practically everything’s out of order and the landlady seems to be spying on her. The local official (Rainer Bock) of the secret police, the Stasi, pays frequent visits, turning the apartment upside-down and bringing along a female colleague to do body cavity searches.

Little wonder, then, that the once-beautiful Barbara looks hard and hollow-eyed, always looking over her shoulder, chain-smoking endlessly and never smiling except for her patients. And yet this film, which won Petzold the Silver Bear for Best Directing at the Berlin Film Festival, is no stereotypical Cold War-era depiction of the ugliness of life under a totalitarian regime. The village where Barbara has been relocated, with its narrow, twisty cobbled streets, retains some Old World charm, and the windy countryside where she takes long bike rides looks as luminous as any seaside resort of northern latitudes. Barbara is still conspiring with Jörg to be smuggled out of the country, but the beauty of the hinterlands is slowly seeping into her bones.

Also wearing on her well-honed defenses are the charms of the cuddly-looking pediatric surgeon Dr. Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld), Barbara’s new boss. Part of the terms of his appointment – which involves the official “forgetting” of a medical scandal that occurred on his watch in a previous job – is a requirement that he report regularly to the Stasi on Barbara’s conduct at the hospital. But their mutual mistrust gradually erodes as the two work together, both bonding with their young patients in ways that the state makes impossible with other adults. The plight of one patient in particular – Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), a troubled teen whose bout of meningitis has provided a brief respite from life in a labor camp – forces Barbara to rethink her priorities in a big way.

The narrative unfolds slowly; Barbara’s neighborhood oppressors epitomize the concept of the banality of evil and the overall sense of threat is more atmospheric than visceral. But it’s a powerful story all the same, riding on a pair of very strong performances from Hoss and Zehrfeld.

What makes Barbara creep quietly under the viewer’s skin, in a way that Cold War-era movies never could, is precisely the fact that it doesn’t hammer us with propagandistic clichés and dramatic exaggeration. It just gently shows us what was, and how a few individuals’ lives might have been affected by a genuinely intrusive and pervasive system of government surveillance. And that’s more than enough to make us thankful that, in small, imperfect increments, the Western world at least seems to be changing for the better.