German director Christian Petzold’s work has always engaged his country’s history and politics. Yet in doing so, it’s drawn on American genre films and literature. His film “Yella” suggested the sort of film that might result from M. Night Shyamalan being set loose in the banking world, back when Shyamalan seemed like a real talent. Its follow-up, “Jerichow,” drew on James M. Cain’s novel “The Postman Always Rings Twice” but used the narrative to describe the alienation of a Turkish immigrant in Germany.
His latest film, “Barbara,” still alludes vaguely to American cinema — with her blonde hair pinned up, its heroine exudes the glamour of Hitchcock’s actresses, even in an East German hospital — but unlike his previous films, its plot opts for intimate character study over drama. You’d think the story of a woman trying to escape East Germany in 1980 would have plenty of thrills, but “Barbara” is disappointingly bland.
Upon applying for an exit visa from East Germany, Barbara (Nina Hoss) is punished with a transfer from Berlin to a small pediatric hospital in the country. She benefits from the attentions of a lover who brings her West German money and cigarettes. (It’s unclear whether the man is actually West German himself.) With him, she plans to escape to the West.
In the meantime, she becomes friends with André (Ronald Zehrfeld), a fellow doctor whose attentions toward her evoke her suspicions. A teenager, Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), checks into the hospital with a case of meningitis, but Barbara discovers the girl is also pregnant. A refugee from a work camp, Stella also wants to leave East Germany. All the while, Barbara grows closer to André.
The cinematography of “Barbara” is tinted a golden yellow, and the corridors of the hospital where Barbara works are painted the same shade. There may be some irony implicit in Petzold’s visual decisions here — or at least a desire to avoid clichéd depictions of communist dystopias. The backwaters of East Germany look a lot warmer and homier than one would expect. Rather than showing us block after block of brutalist architecture, “Barbara” is filled with pleasant bike rides through the woods.
In the very first scene, the audience learns André is spying on Barbara, who, despite her foreign lover, is very lonely. By default, André becomes a friend of sorts, even a rival for her lover’s affection. All this happens despite the fact that André and Barbara don’t trust each other. She makes her paranoia clear to him. Even when he relates a story about a case of medical incompetence that almost ruined his career and left him in debt to East Germany’s spy service, she expresses skepticism about its truth.
They wind up kissing anyway. After all, they’re both very attractive people — Zehrfeld could almost pass for a Russell Crowe lookalike — but they also have no one else to turn to most of the time. Even being an informant is lonely, though given André’s charm and looks, it seems improbable he’s still single and has no friends.
“Barbara” is very good at creating a paranoid atmosphere but not so good at developing a narrative. One of its subplots doesn’t turn out to mean much, while the other provides a surprise ending. For long stretches, the film seems interested in simply observing life in East Germany in 1980. Up to a point, this has its merits, but one gets tired of the doctors’ rounds and ambiguous conversations between André and Barbara, punctuated by trysts with her lover.
The finale suddenly shifts to a monochrome image that looks like Andrei Tarkovsky, and it seems to celebrate an ideal of Christian sacrifice. “Barbara” is more satisfying than the much more popular “The Lives of Others,” made in 2006, but the definitive film about the way East Germany’s spy service insidiously got its citizens to turn on each other remains to be made.
BARBARA | Directed by Christian Petzold | Adopt Films | In German with English subtitles | Opens Dec. 21 | The Angelika | 18 W. Houston St. at Mercer St. | angelikafi