Of all directors working in Germany today, Christian Petzold has the surest hand and, while, after just one viewing, it's too early to stake a claim for Barbara as his best film yet, it is, in many ways, a culmination of his stylistic progression towards a classic yet vividly contemporary cinematic language. Referencing influences in interviews — like many directors who can afford the time, Petzold likes to screen films for his cast in the weeks of rehearsal before shooting begins — he's been citing quite a few of late from both Golden Age and New Hollywood. The ghost of Marnie moves through Yella (2007) in the way a camera follows a woman up a set of stairs. Jerichow (2008) transposes The Postman Always Rings Twice from the oppressive shadows of film noir to a sun-drenched summer in present-day Germany. Of the three films that comprise Dreileben (2011), Petzold's Beats Being Dead is the one that takes advantage of the potential for suspense in the set-up (a dangerous criminal has escaped from prison), building toward the only jolting "Boo!" moment in the trilogy. In this year's round of interviews, Petzold tells us he's been watching Chabrol, Hawks's To Have and Have Not (for the way lovers in jeopardy speak to each other in code) and French Connection, "a film that never stands on the side of power." All of these later works exude an astounding confidence in the way Petzold places his camera (just below eye-level throughout nearly all of Barbara) and guides each shot into the next.
Barbara echoes thematic concerns as well (and once again, Harun Farocki serves as a dramaturgical advisor). Like Jeanne, the teenage daughter dragged across Europe by her fugitive parents long after their network of left-wing militants has unravelled in The State I Am In (2000), Barbara (Nina Hoss) can share her true self and her real intentions with one man only, a lover half a world away who may well not ultimately measure up to the man she hopes and tentatively believes him to be. The year is 1980; notably, this makes Barbara Petzold's first period piece. Barbara is a doctor, and a good one, too, who arrives in a provincial town in the north — crucially, not far from the coast — of what was then East Germany. Her transfer from East Berlin's largest hospital is the regime's punishment for her having applied for an exit visa. The staff has one word for the snootiness they perceive in her: "Berlin."
André (Ronald Zehrfeld), the head doctor with the gentle charisma of warm bear, advises her not to cut herself off so coldly. She mocks his wording ("separieren," telegraphing: "You and I, as opposed to most of the staff, are well-educated; we share that at least; it's a start, yes?); her scowl is a clear warning to back off. She can't tell him that she has a lover, Jörg (Mark Waschke), in the West, plotting her escape; she doesn't need to tell him that she's routinely subjected to searches, body cavities and all, by a frigid crew of state police lead by the ironically named Klaus Schütz (Rainer Bock; "schützen" = "to protect"; glimmers of quiet wit gleam throughout Barbara).
German directors from the West who've set their films in the GDR, most notably, Wolfgang Becker (Good Bye Lenin!, 2003) and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Others, 2006), have been met in the past with relative commercial success worldwide — and grumblings from the East: What could these Wessis really know about these lives of others? But Christian Petzold's family fled the GDR, leaving behind most of his relatives, whom he'd visit throughout his childhood.
In one of the best reviews in the German press to appear so far, Thomas Groh, writing for Perlentaucher, notes that Petzold tells Cristina Nord, in an interview for die taz, that…
He never experienced [the GDR] as gray, but rather, as colorful. These colors have faded from the cinema of the GDR, hence his decision to return, after is last film, to shooting analog, on 35mm: "The color palette is so human." And what colors they are: Never laid on thick, even when they're at times strong. The red curtain that André pulls apart at the window. The muted orange over the streets at night. The shimmering gold face of Nina Hoss as she plays the piano in front of a blue curtain. The make-up on Nina Hoss's eyelids. And finally, the dramatic climax on the beach: The horizon like a stark stripe drawn across the screen, Denmark shimmering lightly in the distance, Nina Hoss all pale, white-blue with white hair — a ghost of a woman at the extreme point of narrative tension. And how saturated, the blue of the jacket she sometimes wears. An eye for color that corresponds directly to the sensual sound design: When Barbara hides her stash of West German marks from the prying authorities under a heavy stone out in the open, the wind rushing through the trees becomes an experience all its own.
Petzold "is such a master of tone and mood that I could feel the vibrations of the movie's subtle humor, even if I'd be hard-pressed to articulate it," writes Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek. "Barbara starts out slow and then moves even slower — but by the end, somehow, it got me in its gentle clutches."
"Masterful stuff," remarks Kevin B Lee at Press Play. He gives Barbara an A-. More from Jordan Mintzer (Hollywood Reporter) and Jonathan Romney (Screen). And Film-Zeit is collecting reviews from the German-language press.
Ratings. Festival regulars will know all about Screen International's Jury Grid. A handful of critics from around the world is asked to rate the films in competition each day, and so far, Barbara's racked up the highest score. An average of 3.3 out of 4 stars. The breakdown: Scott Foundas: 4 (looks like New Yorkers may be seeing Barbara at the Film Society of Lincoln Center at some point in the future); Derek Malcolm (Evening Standard): 3; Nick James (Sight & Sound): 3; Tim Robey (Telegraph): 3; Jose Carlos Avellar (Escrevercinema.com): 3; Bo Green Jensen (Weekendavisen Berlinske): 3; Jan Schulz-Ojala (Tagesspiegel): 3; Screen itself: 4.
Der Tagesspiegel has a similar grid and five of Germany's top critics (Verena Lueken, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung; Daniel Sander, Spiegel; Susan Vahabzadeh, Süddeutsche Zeitung; Cristina Nord, taz; Katja Nicodemus, Zeit) give Barbara their highest rating ("excellent") while a sixth (Schulz-Ojala again) deems it merely "good."
Updates, 2/20: Adopt Films has acquired all US rights, reports indieWIRE's Peter Knegt.
At In Contention, Guy Lodge notes that "Petzold never overplays his hand stylistically, daring to keep the pace unnervingly moderate even as incidents pile up, patiently allowing the camera to drink in each yellowed corner of the musty period production design as Hoss's brilliant, breakable stare meets it head-on. When Petzold unexpectedly signs off proceedings with the creamy disco surge of Chic's 'At Last I Am Free' in the closing credits, you can practically hear the cast and crew's exhalations."
More from Théodora Olivi at Independencia.
Update, 3/8: Anna Tatarska interviews Petzold for Fandor: "I believe that capitalism, West German-style capitalism, and East Germany-style communism, have a very tough, but loving relationship going on between them, so to speak. The western style capitalism somehow identified with the eastern form of communism and vice-versa. After the collapse of the GDR there was this brief moment of triumph but afterwards disillusion prevailed. Now it's really hard for western-style capitalism because it has no distorting mirror to look at."