Our first roundup on Christian Petzold‘s Barbara, one of my own favorite films of 2012 (a list is forthcoming), gathered reviews that came in from the Toronto and New York film festivals and Barbara‘s run in the UK. Now that Adopt Films is sending the film around the country, we’re overdue for a second look.
Writing for Artinfo, J. Hoberman begins by noting that “Ostalgie” is a “German coinage that combines the words for ‘nostalgia’ and ‘east’ and refers to a fascination with the vanished DDR, can take many forms. There is the ironic appreciation of Communist asceticism, in the form of themed restaurants, movie comedies like Goodbye Lenin!, and collectibles…. There is a yearning for the seriousness of underground art and satire made in defiance of a dictatorship, as exhibited last year in the New Museum’s Ostalgia show. There are cautionary movies, notably The Lives of Others, as well as documentaries and artworks drawing on the liberated files of the Stasi, the DDR ubiquitous and highly bureaucratic state police—and there are more nuanced attempts to reproduce the mentalité of Germany’s ‘Red Atlantis‘ like Christian Petzold’s Barbara. Petzold’s parents moved from East to West Germany a year before the Berlin Wall went up and his cinematic excavation of the DDR is as curious about the otherness of life there as it is censorious.”
“The pleasures of this coolly controlled, tensely watchable, subtle psychological thriller are many,” writes Phillip Lopate for Film Comment, “starting with the perfect sensibility match between director Christian Petzold (Jerichow) and his perennial leading actress, Nina Hoss. There is no getting around the fact that Hoss is amazing, brilliant, dominant in the title role. As Barbara, a physician exiled to an East German provincial town as punishment for having applied for an exit visa from the GDR (the film is set in 1980, almost a decade before the fall of the Berlin Wall), Hoss exudes such fierce wariness and disdain for her colleagues, whom she realistically suspects may be spying on her for the Stasi, that the film’s suspense lies less in whether she’ll be able to smuggle herself out of this country she detests than whether she will exhibit any humanity, any crack in her icy demeanor. She does eventually, revealing a warmer, more vulnerable femininity beneath the chiseled façade of embitterment, but in such precisely calibrated ways that each time it comes as a shock.”
“Barbara is Hoss’ fifth film with Petzold, and the movie rests on the depth and subtlety of their working relationship,” writes Sam Adams at the AV Club. “Petzold trusts the actor to allow her character’s humanity to seep through, even as she shirks from human contact; she trusts him to capture minute, almost imperceptible gradations of feeling. Even when she’s with others, Hoss seems alone, and for a good piece of the movie, she’s the only person in the frame, struggling to keep her bike upright as she checks out a hidden stash of money on a country road, a gale bending the long grass around her sideways. It’s as if the earth itself is against her.”
“The cinema of resistance takes different forms,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. “It includes films that advocate revolution, like the 1966 classic The Battle of Algiers, and works that, more by virtue of their aesthetic choices, join the opposition. Barbara is another type of resistance movie. That’s partly because it concerns a dissident who, with modest, obstinate anger, pushes back against totalitarianism, but also because Mr. Petzold refuses movie clichés as strongly as he does political orthodoxy. At once regionally specific and a student of all cinema, he draws on numerous traditions and makes them his own. His early love of Hitchcock, for one, is evident in the prickles of unease that creep into his work, creating a cold climate of paranoia and an oft-justified fear of an imminent threat.”
“Petzold’s style is practical,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky in MUBI’s Notebook, “but it never comes off as overly utilitarian or understated, in part because every shot and cut feels invested with a sense of purpose. Like Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Petzold is a genre director whose work eschews conventional devices and techniques; his films, essentially thrillers, operate by never giving a viewer cues—visual, musical, or tonal—as to what sort of film they’re watching. His plots read like pulp but play like natural, logical developments of the setting and characters.”
“It wouldn’t be fair to spoil the ending, but Petzold’s final joke is well worth noting,” finds Vadim Rizov, writing at GreenCine Daily. “Throughout the film, only classical music is heard, both on state radio and in Barbara’s own piano performances (Hoss plays herself, something Petzold understandably can’t resist highlighting in a rare pan up from her hands to her face). But over the final end credits, we hear the first pop strains: a live rendition of Chic’s ‘At Last I Am Free.’ Sonic liberty’s a start, but is Nile Rodgers the highest reward democratic capitalism has to offer? Possibly, but Petzold isn’t saying.”
“Intricately engaged with the real world, Mr. Petzold’s movies are also steeped in film history,” writes Dennis Lim in his profile of the director for the NYT. “Before each shoot he organizes a screening series for his cast and crew. Reference points for Barbara included period films he deemed ‘totally modern,’ he said, like Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Jean Renoir’s Marseillaise. The connections are often indirect: Rosselini’s Stromboli for the comportment of Ingrid Bergman’s exiled heroine; Hawks’s To Have and Have Not for its portrayal of a romance forced by circumstances to develop its own language.”
More interviews and profiles: Christopher Bell (Playlist), Dustin Chang (Twitch), and R. Kurt Osenlund (Filmmaker). Petzold’s also a guest on the Leonard Lopate Show. Interviews with Nina Hoss: R. Emmet Sweeney (Film Comment), Ben Umstead (Twitch), and Hillary Weston (BlackBook).
Updates, 1/9: David D’Arcy: “There is something of the visual fable in Barbara that reminded me of a storytelling strategy in painting in the 15th and 16th centuries, in which a saint with a clearly identifiable attribute and a familiar biography is at the center of the frame, surrounded by miniature scenes from her life, one of which tended to be martyrdom. The bicycle becomes the saintly attribute, as the tower was for Saint Barbara, who was imprisoned there by her Roman father, lest suitors get to her—at least, that’s what legend tells us.”
Josef Braun: “Cageyness is elemental to all three of the Petzold films I’ve now seen—besides Barbara, I’ve also enjoyed its immediate predecessors Yella (2007) and Jerichow (2008)—each of which star the imminently watchable Nina Hoss. Petzold is very good with gauging distances, his camera very selective about when it grants us closer looks at faces or objects or anything that might contain secrets. Barbara doles out exposition slowly and carefully, building intrigue and unease, and Hoss, with her particular control of how shifts in thought register in her face and body, helps Petzold turn this building into a form of seduction.”
Updates, 1/12: Petzold “is a poet of anomie, an artist of penetrating sociological insight,” writes Michael Sicinski for the Nashville Scene. “Petzold invests Barbara with a warmer, more classicist look than usual; he has quite deliberately sanded down the more jagged edges of his directorial style. Nevertheless, Barbara retains the filmmaker’s clear-eyed materialism—not a surprise, since the film is another of Petzold’s frequent collaborations with leftist documentarian Harun Farocki. Power and violence saturate everyday life to such extent that they become a leaden weight in the body’s cells, an added gravity that ever so slightly impedes basic movement. Life under communism isn’t a glamorously horrific experience but a dull, throbbing banality—a slow grinding death. Compare this to the sensationalism of 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, or the bromides of The Lives of Others, and Petzold’s contribution shines all the more brightly.”
Anna Altman gets a few words with Petzold for the New Yorker.