Directed by Christian Petzold. Starring Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Rainer Bock, Chrstina Hecke, Claudia Geisler 12A cert, Cineworld/IFI, Dublin, 105 min
WE ARE introduced to Barbara (Nina Hoss) in cold, unfriendly terms. She’s sulky, like a six-year- old, the local East German officer informs the head of the clinic, ahead of her arrival.
Sure enough, Barbara, a doctor who has been transferred from a Berlin hospital to this remote northern small-town sickhouse, does indeed behave like a recently deposed princess. She swans past her new colleagues at lunch. She refuses to accept a ride home. She looks at Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), the young, idealistic doctor who runs the the clinic, like something found on the bottom of her shoe, despite his obvious crush on her. Then she returns home to a GDR ransacking and full-cavity search.
It’s a jolt for the viewer, but for Barbara, we learn, it’s a regular occurrence. We revise our opinion. She’s distant at work because she has to be. If anything, she’s not paranoid enough. In a world of constant state surveillance, nobody can be what they seem – and few are.
The secret police targeted a celebrated state playwright in The Lives of Others. By chilling comparison, the heroine here is a jobsworth in the provinces. Fans of writer-director Christian Petzold’s tricksy, fascinating Yella will already know that his ordinary lives are seldom all that ordinary.
Barbara, true to form, is a slow burner. The film’s accumulation of patient takes and humdrum details puts a spotlight on the banality of evil. Hans Fromm’s canny, unobtrusive camera lingers as Hoss blanches at the flick of a rubber glove.
Petzold is going somewhere with this. Disparate subplots concerning Barbara’s West German lover and a runaway teen attempting to take refuge at the clinic do, finally, converge into a strange, compelling parable from a strange history.
This is Hoss’s fifth collaboration with Petzold. For sheer acting chops, its the most fruitful screen partnership since the De Niro- Scorsese years.