The pleasures of this coolly controlled, tensely watchable, subtle psychological thriller are many, starting with the perfect sensibility match between director Christian Petzold (Jerichow) and his perennial leading actress, Nina Hoss. There is no getting around the fact that Hoss is amazing, brilliant, dominant in the title role. As Barbara, a physician exiled to an East German provincial town as punishment for having applied for an exit visa from the GDR (the film is set in 1980, almost a decade before the fall of the Berlin Wall), Hoss exudes such fierce wariness and disdain for her colleagues, whom she realistically suspects may be spying on her for the Stasi, that the film’s suspense lies less in whether she’ll be able to smuggle herself out of this country she detests than whether she will exhibit any humanity, any crack in her icy demeanor. She does eventually, revealing a warmer, more vulnerable femininity beneath the chiseled façade of embitterment, but in such precisely calibrated ways that each time it comes as a shock.
For all that the film bills itself as a character study (and a star vehicle), it is at least as much about the dynamics of a whole society under police surveillance. Where everyone is expected to snitch on neighbors, relatives, and colleagues for the good of utopian, if by now worn-out, socialist ideals, it becomes harder to despise individual informants. Unlike, say, the heavy-handed way The Lives of Others makes villains of its police agents, here we see that the characters have little choice but to inform: everyone has his reasons, legitimate reasons, beyond cowardice even, to cooperate with the state.
The adamant Barbara, who will never snitch, is drawn reluctantly to her male colleague at the hospital. Andre, a shaggy, amiable doctor superbly played by Ronald Zehrfeld, has secretly been instructed to report on her. Andre’s motor seems to be running at half the speed of the tightly wound Barbara, and that disparity makes for unusual potential partnering. In one of the film’s strongest scenes, Andre confesses to Barbara the reason why he has been exiled to this backwater. He tells his heartfelt tale and she receives it in total silence, with pure mistrust, forcing him to comment like an acting student after a failed audition: “What’s the matter, did I tell it too smoothly?” You realize suddenly that in this vigilance-driven society, everyone is forced to be an actor, to wear a false mask.
The film zigzags physically between tight, claustrophobic scenes at the hospital and relatively more expansive ones following Barbara on a bicycle into the picturesque countryside, where she tries to find some privacy while putting in place the means for an escape attempt with the aid of her West German boyfriend. She is always looking over her shoulder, afraid of being watched, and with good reason, it turns out. Meanwhile, her medical professionalism is aroused by the needs of her patients. Petzold and his cinematographer, Hans Fromm, have framed each shot with consummate intelligence and restraint, capturing both the austerity and the decorousness of this human-scaled environment. We are always made aware, compositionally, of the emotional constraints on the characters, and in the final act, of the temporal limits as well. Time is running out for Barbara. But is the conclusion too neat, too predictable, as a film critic friend of mine complained? Maybe so. On the other hand, there is a thin line between the predictable and the inevitable, and a film that does so many things right is entitled, I believe, to conclude in the manner of its own choosing.