"Barbara" might be a quiet movie, but it's certainly not tranquil. By the end of this brilliant movie by German director Christian Petzold, every sound of an approaching car or a gust of wind will put you on edge.
The Barbara of the title (played by Nina Hoss) is a talented doctor banished to a small burg on the Baltic Sea by the East German authorities for reasons that aren't immediately clear. What is clear is that she has no desire for friends. Despite the attention and admonitions of hunky fellow doctor André (Ronald Zehrfeld), she remains as forbidding as the Berlin Wall. Her aloof ways make her the subject of curiosity and gossip among the villagers. As we soon learn, Barbara has good reason to be standoffish; she is doing everything she can to get out of the country. Of course, her every move is also being monitored by East Germany's notorious secret police, the Stasi. They search her apartment at will and occasionally bring in a matron in rubber gloves to search her body cavities. The threat of imprisonment constantly shadows Barbara.
Petzold directs this movie with the precision of a surgeon, doling out information bit by precious bit. With an admirable lack of exposition (the baggiest part of any script), Petzold drops you right in the middle of the story and forces you to figure out what is going on. In many directors' hands, this would be a recipe for disaster. In Petzold's, it's mesmerizing. The quietness of the movie becomes unbearably claustrophobic. And as Barbara's situation becomes more and more clear, the movie's suspense gets ratcheted up to the point where you are at the edge of your seat and your heart is in your throat.
I saw "Barbara" at the Toronto Film Festival this past year when it was unfortunately scheduled opposite Harmony Korine's very buzzy, girls-gone-wrong yarn, "Spring Breakers." There were only a handful of journalists at the screening and, as a result, it didn't get the press that it deserved. In a fair and just world, "Barbara" -- which is easily one of the best films of 2012 -- would be getting the sort of press attention of, say, "Les Misérables."
Follow me on Twitter (@jonccrow)
See the trailer for 'Barbara':