Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss) is a top-notch physician -- able to diagnosis meningitis with a glance at the patient's chart and a single pertinent question -- who had the audacity to ask for an exit visa from East Germany in 1980.
This was seven years before Ronald Reagan's famous call to "tear down this wall" and nine before it actually fell. Barbara's answer was a transfer from Berlin and the largest hospital in Europe to a small pediatric hospital in the country, where she is an object of suspicion and surveillance.
When she disappears for a few hours, two men from the East German secret police appear at her assigned apartment in "Barbara."
3 stars = Good
Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld.
PG-13 for some sexual material, thematic elements and smoking.
"Had a little outing?" they sneer before pawing through her belongings and ushering in a woman who pulls on a pair of latex gloves with a snap and orders, "This way please," for what will be a strip search, body cavities included.
Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld, who looks like a younger, beefier Russell Crowe), another doctor at the country outpost, offers advice, a shared appreciation for the arts and possible friendship, but Barbara suspects he's simply trying to keep an eye on her. She realizes, however, he shares her dedication to patients; she with a virtual prisoner from a work camp, he with a suicidal young man.
She must decide whether she can make peace with her exile or whether she deserves freedom and happiness, just as they do in this German-language film from Christian Petzold.
The audience is much like Barbara (the name means foreign, by the way) as it gingerly tries to figure out who to trust.
Her humorless landlady, who radiates disapproval and mistrust, wields a ring of keys as if she were a jailer and, in a sense, she is. When a colleague recounts a tragic medical mishap, Barbara is moved but cannot help but wonder, "Is that true?" When her bicycle is not where she left it after an intimate rendezvous, she wonders who saw it and her.
Writer-director Petzold, who prepared by watching such films as "To Have and Have Not" and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "The Merchant of Four Seasons," alternates between close-ups and long shots that give the impression someone could be spying on Barbara from the shadows. Even the patients' rooms have curtains on door windows that can be pulled apart so the doctor can peek inside without turning the knob.
Barbara lives a life on alert, freezing or flinching at the sound or sight of a car that might be tracking her; she is as tighly coiled as the blond bun she wears during working hours.
One character seems almost too good to be true (or maybe the transplant's wariness has tainted us), and you'll see where this movie is headed but "Barbara" chooses its cultured references wisely and slyly.
A maternal figure plucks a classic from a bin of children's books to read aloud to a patient, and a Rembrandt painting sends a signal about viewpoint and allegiance -- much as the German-born director does, too, with the benefit of historical hindsight.
In German with English subtitles, "Barbara" opens Friday at the Harris Theater, Downtown.