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Occasionally there are productions that are more remarkable than others. I usually do not check out films about the often sad, sometimes terrible life in post-war Eastern Germany. Let’s say: it’s a topic that doesn’t appeal to me… But in the words of a book critic “I am not interested in Eskimos – But if someone tells me an interesting story about Eskimos, there is no reason not to like it.” “Barbara” is such a story that is interesting because of the people involved, defying the rather depressing setting.

Barbara is a physician who has been transferred to one of the more remote places to be found in Eastern Germany, with the intention of keeping her from having any more stupid ideas about emigrating to the West. She stays cold and distanced from her new colleagues and her new location, now fixed on the idea of escape, and she carefully plans her steps. We realise she is very competent at what she’s doing and not at all immune to human relationships, actually suffering, it seems, from the need to suppress them for the sake of her escape plan.

All this plays out in front of the Eastern German dictatorship and the perennial invasion of the secret service into everybody’s life. Barbara herself is under scrutiny, but so is her colleague at the hospital and the young girl delivered with serious cases of meningitis and unintended pregnancy. Barbara needs to process this, needs to decide what her role in all this can be, how far she can fight back without endangering the future she has planned with a Western German business man. This all can’t go well in a good (i.e. honest) film, and when drama erupts, I was not surprised by the choices she makes. But still moved.

Christian Petzold is a very competent German director, one of those who can turn a relevant story into a cinematic experience, not just an intellectual essay. I have not seen all his films, but “Die Innere Sicherheit”, “Wolfsburg”, “Gespenster”, “Yella” and “Jericho” would be enough to secure his rank among Europe’s finest. A pleasure to see how he manages to put the person in the foreground, and fill the background with all the information and atmosphere necessary, without turning his film into a boring educational.

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