Coming off of a major debut at this year’s Berlin Film Festival (where the film’s director, the incomparable Christian Petzold, won Best Director), very few films have as much buzz behind them quite like the director’s latest work, Barbara. Already a potential Oscar nominee (it’s Germany’s entrant for Best Foreign Language film and seen as an early favorite for a nomination), the film has arrived domestically thanks to this year’s NYFF, and thankfully, it lives up to all the hype and then some.
An evocative bit of Cold War-fueled angst, Barbara tells the story of a doctor finding herself at work in the countryside following her exile. Sent away after looking to getting an exit visa, she is slowly planning an escape with her main squeeze, only to find herself falling for a co-worker and continually accosted by a mysterious and stone-faced Stasi agent. Starring Petzold regular Nina Hoss, the film is not only one of 2012’s most beautifully crafted feature films, but as almost an anti-thriller thriller, the film is a brooding meditation on paranoia that may be one of the year’s greatest films.
Working together for the fifth time, the pair of Hoss and Petzold are on the tops of their respective games. The film not only rests on the acting shoulders of star Hoss, but particularly on her face. Driven almost entirely through both glances and single looks, but people and their expressive reactions to these moments, the film relies more on the actors and their ability to emote than the written screenplay. The script itself is admittedly superb, but the pair of Petzold and Hoss have such a chemistry behind and in front of the camera, that the filmmaker truly understands that Hoss’ greatest attribute is the fire in her physicality.
Minimalist as any film you’ll see in 2012, Barbara holds its closest kin within the filmography of directors like Michael Haneke. Instead of acting as yet another cold crime thriller that fills Petzold’s canon, the frigid nature of his filmmaking is thrust upon a story seemingly ripped out of the pages of a gripping airplane-ready thriller novel. Always glossed over with this sheen of paranoia, the film itself doesn’t see much occur narratively. However, while everything about this film screams minimalism, it’s as gripping as any action-packed thriller you’ll see.
And Petzold is the film’s greatest attribute. Tossing over the film a chilly cloud of anxiety, the film is visually quite warm. Shooting the East German landscape lovingly, the film is drenched in sunlight warmth that only adds to the films overall aesthetic. Petzold doesn’t allow his frame too much movement, but for a film that is built entirely upon people and their reactions to each other, that only plays into the hand of the audience. The slowest of slow burns, when the film ultimately starts to sizzle, the film becomes as engrossing as a fire.
While the film’s molasses-slow pace may not allow for everyone to have a strong point of entry, those willing to dig deeply into this cold and distant feature will be engrossed in one of the most intriguing looks at paranoia that we’ve seen in quite some time. Led by the cinematic dynamic duo of director Christian Petzold and Nina Hoss, Barbara is a film that will not be easily forgotten by those who lay their eyes upon it. A film that plays like a Hitchcock thriller, even focusing on a beautiful blonde, just sans the piercing score and lively camera, the film will leave you looking behind your back at any given moment.