Barbara (2012)

28 01 2013

It sounds like I’m just a bitter cinephile, but for whatever reason, Christian Petzold’s increase in popularity among the arthouse crowd has come with his biggest disappointments, in my eyes, as a filmmaker. Jerichow and Yella were both big international hits for the filmmaker, but they did little for me. It seems that the distinct minimalism developed by Petzold in his earlier films was now being designated for middlebrow dramas, that worked against the discourse established in films like Gespenster and The State I Am In. 2011’s Beats Being Dead felt like a return to form, but I knew considering the specific circumstances it was made under (it’s part of a three film series, in which each director takes a different perspective on the same story) it might not have been a sign for the long-term. It turns out I was wrong.


The film’s titular character, Barbara is a doctor in Berlin who is exiled to the countryside after she reveals her intentions to move towards the west. There’s several small dramas happening within the hospital. Barbara becomes attached to a young girl, Stella, whose problems had been previously dismissed by the other doctors in the country. In the mean time, Barbara has secret meetings with her lover, who gives her money and informs her of the details pertaining to her slowly evolving plan to leave for the West.


On paper, the story seems quite silly. In fact, the premise doesn’t seem particularly disconnected from Petzold’s last two collaborations with Nina Hoss. Once again, she’s a woman hiding something and once again she doesn’t with a cold type of composure. Part of the appeal of her performances is that she does reveal very little about herself, outside of the details of plot. It sounds a little bit critical to consider Petzold’s film as a genre one, but much like Jerichow, he seems to be drawing upon common narrative elements, even as he shies away from the iconography and form of a conventional “mystery” film.


The context of this film might give it an immediate advantage on Jerichow, which fit far too firmly into the narrative makeup of a noir. In that film, Hoss is expected to act as a modern femme fatale, but her acting style draws most of the life out of such a character type. In this situation, her acting style makes her character inherently more interesting. She seems not only reserved, but calculating in her actions, but she manages to show compassion and even acts on a bizarre impulse in one situation. Her friendship with Stella might seem a little manufactured and hokey, but it gives her character a chance to display not something that’s good (which it is, but that sounds too corny) but more importantly, something about her that is interesting. Her ability to connect to children gives Petzold to return to some old material that he had somewhat neglected.


What made Beats Being Dead feel like such a change in direction for Petzold was that he had returned to working with adolescence or at least young adults. In his very best films, Gespenster and The State I Am In, teenagers and/or young adults play a crucial role. The conversations, which are awkward and fractured, seem bigger because everything means more when you’re younger and, as some people see it, dumber. The dialogue in Yella or Jerichow seemed to bring the pace to a halt. They felt like a director uncomfortable and maybe uninterested in what his characters had to say. This isn’t exactly a problem since Petzold is arguably a more visual director anyway, but the conversation sequences in those two films seemed forced within his aesthetic.


This is not the case in Barbara and part of me wants to credit it to teenagers returning to Petzold’s world. They haven’t returned as the focus, but they still serve as vital parts in revealing to the audience the character of Barbara. Hoss seems more like a human being and less of a figure self-consciously written to be quiet to help make the “slow-moving art film” feels more like that exactly. Her interactions with Andre seem not only like they could be studied multiple times but that they should be studied multiple times. This is an important difference between this film and the other Hoss-Petzold collaboration I’ve mentioned already. The conversations feel important, not in a narrative sense, but in a way of understanding the character. Maybe Petzold’s compositions are tighter and maybe Hoss has delivered a better performance but the truth seems to be that these two talented people are finally working with a script conducive to their talents.