With Barbara, which takes part to the Official Selection of the LUX Prize 2012, German director Christian Petzold explores his common theme of duplicity in a new way. The historical film portrays with great precision the atmosphere of the German Democratic Republic in 1980, and the daily tension of Eastern Germans peparing an escape. The eponymous heroine, interpreted by the always elegant Nina Hoss, is a female doctor from Berlin who is transferred to a hospital in a small town after she applies for a visa to West Germany, where her lover Jörg (Mark Waschke) lives.
Because she is closely watched by state security and devulges absolutely nothing about herself, she lives in gloomy isolation, only bearable because she is so indifferent about a life that she cannot wait to leave. She performs her work with passion, but develops a strange relationship of complicity and defiance with her supervisor Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), although she knows that he might be watching her, especially as the latter knows the state security agent who keeps turning up at her house with his female colleague who wears latex gloves.
With his famous meticulous attention to detail, in the film’s setting, its objects, and its characters, Petzold lets us observe the ramifications of Barbara’s resolution, the difficulty to lie, her doubts. When Jörg, with whom we realise that she isn’t exactly herself either, tells her of a good time to cross into West Germany, she replies without hesitating that she will be on call at the hospital!
The film is undeniably of high quality. However, knowing Petzold’s talent in superimposing levels of reality to atteign great psychological veracity, and knowing Hoss’ talent in playing characters between reality, projections, and fantasies (as she did for Petzold in the superb Yella), one cannot help but be disturbed by the story’s linearity. One can however easily imagine that, for the East Germans who found themselves in Barbara’s situation, the film hits the nail on the head.
In Competition at the Berlinale, director Christian Petzold won the Silver Bear for Best Director with Barbara. Read here extracts from the press conference.
How important was it for you to shoot Barbara, and what triggered the desire to do it?
Christian Petzold: Although I was born in the West, my parents fled the GDR. I was in the former GDR to shoot my last films and while I was there, I felt a certain homesickness. I don't know where it came from. The idea was that to talk about the GDR, all you had to do was write a novel that would sort everything out, but what we really need to write are novellas, vignettes about collapsing systems and about love. So we took the Hermann Broch novella, set it in the East, and turned it into the film Barbara.
So this is a love story rooted in the everyday life of the GDR?
I found interesting the idea to fall in love through work. For us (even in the cinema), love often comes after work - people fall in love on their holidays, at the Club Med... What fascinates me about the GDR is also that people would work together and that could turn into a love story. East and West are not so far removed from each other, but think of Sam Fuller films, where a woman can be making weapons, and suddenly love comes along: in the West, it sometimes seems that love is something you can find out of a catalogue... I think love is part of a production, not reproduction...
You chose as a final song Nile Rodgers' At last I am free.
We talked about that song at length. It is about love and the civil rights movement. Love and the revolution sometimes have something to do with each other: the colour red, the time of cherries (...) Freedom is not something that you see in the ads, sometimes it means putting up with coldness, loneliness, and there's also an element of that mood in the final image, the look the characters give each other, and then in the song.
Isn't there something grim about the image of the GDR presented here, when Barbara says it's crazy to think one can be happy in this country ?
It is revised in the end. That sentence is not important, she says that to her lover not to us. She's not interested in finding a hero to save her, to sacrifice, she just wants to insist that she met him and will follow him. The most decisive sentence is when he says "You can sleep as much as you want when you come, I have enough for the both of us, you won't have to work", a sentence she doesn't respond to, but there's a wave of cold from the West rolling over this emancipation movement in the East – and nine years later, East Germans all got to stay home with money from the CDU...
The film feels like it is not only about the GDR...
Let's talk about the historical angle. Once I was thinking about Chinatown and how crucial the production design was for this film. We wanted to shoot a GDR film with a different production design. We wanted to have autumnal trees and more colourful clothes, to take the historical aspect and show it in a fluid way – GDR always looks so mothballed and stuffy... We wanted to make it look organic, physical, palpable. Then you can get all the emotions – the mistrust, the big decisions – brought into that. Precision is not all about the tiny stupid details – but we did search for the West-German Quelle catalogue for 16 days on ebay. That kind of historical precision is not what the film was about. My focus was not on the GDR but on collapsing regimes and how you can survive in them, and how the people who are left in the rubble can build a lifeboat. I have seen how wretched most East Germans were. I did not want to reconstitute the GDR, my film was not about renactment and high-precision historical drama – which entails reconstituting something about which you can wonder whether it is precisely true or not, whether it is actually true at all, whether it is not reproducing something which is just propaganda, or not... But that's a whole other issue!