‘Barbara’: A Cold War Lesson in What Good People Do When Nations Fail

Director Christian Petzold’s parents rarely spoke of leaving East Germany for the West. Now he feels that story must be told.

A blonde woman, Nina Hoss, rides a bike in the countryside in a scene from Barbara

A doctor (Nina Hoss) in the German Democratic Republic during the Cold War can ride home from work, but never truly feels at home in the new thriller Barbara. (Photo: Courtesy of Adopt Films)

Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, IFC.com and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

Filmmaker Christian Petzold likes to tell a story about the making of Barbara.

Germany’s official entry into this year’s Oscars, which will open in theaters this week, is set in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) of 1980. During rehearsals before filming, the director set about gathering memories from any of his cast and crew who were old enough to remember when the country had been divided into two by communism.

Stories were exchanged about the smells people from Hamburg would have missed had they lived in East Germany, and the sound of the Baltic Sea that East Germans would have missed if they’d lived in the west. The recollection that really stuck with Petzold was one actress’s tale of making a dinner date as she was leaving the German Democratic Republic, knowing that she’d never return.

“It’s not like a refugee from Mexico to here [America] or the Turkish in Germany [who seek economic prosperity],” Petzold tells TakePart. “They can go back. But these refugees, there’s never a chance to see their friends again. It’s like death.”

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The aftermath of the failed Socialist state has long loomed over the work of Petzold, as it has loomed over the whole of Germany. Barbara is the first time the acclaimed director has confronted the legacy directly. But by setting the tense thriller in 1980 at the height of the Cold War—rather than the contemporary times where he’s usually worked—Petzold’s film doesn’t answer to the past as much as it speaks to the timeless importance of exerting individual will in the face of an overreaching government.

Told through the eyes of its titular character (Nina Hoss), a doctor from Berlin who’s been exiled to the East German countryside after applying for a West German visa, Barbara shows a strong woman struggling to remain human in a regime that systematically drains that quality from its citizenry. Ultimately, she is forced to choose between her own freedom and the needs of her patients.

A trip to the Athens Film Festival this past September while on the road promoting Barbara reinforced Petzold’s belief that we should never stop questioning the systems we support. 

For Petzold, the film is personal. He grew up with parents who fled the East for the West before he was born. His parents rarely spoke of their experience in the German Democratic Republic until the Berlin Wall fell. The filmmaker is seeking a way to put faces to people who were swept up into governmental regimes they didn’t necessarily have a role in creating, in the process encouraging people to reflect on their role in the society the live in.

A trip to the Athens Film Festival this past September while on the road promoting Barbara reinforced Petzold’s belief that we should never stop questioning the systems we support.    

“When we started work on Barbara, I thought [about] how it is to live in a country which is dying and how can you survive,” says Petzold. “I stayed in Greece and [realized] this is a dying society. From the airport to the center [of the city], there is no advertising anymore on the streets, nothing. It’s empty of advertising because there’s no money.”

After giving it some thought, the film the blighted scene reminded him of wasn’t his own.

“It’s a little bit like Omega Man with Charlton Heston.”

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