Isolation is a harrowing state of being.
It is, for most of us, an intolerable plane of existence, a denial of one of our most basic imperatives; that is, to form bonds with others.
But for Barbara (Nina Hoss, appearing in her fifth movie for the film’s much revered director Christian Herzold), a pediatrician in early 1980s East Germany, forced by a Stasi edict to leave her job as one of the premier hospitals in Berlin, and move to a provincial hospital, it is a self-imposed necessity, an act of both self-preservation but also defiance against an almost omniscient security apparatus that shadows her every move.
Regardless of whether its manifestations are blatant, such as the unannounced, and brutally invasive, searches of both her rundown apartment (overseen by the dour janitor Mrs Bungert played by Rosa Enskat) and, to her traumatic disgust, her body, all overseen by local Stasi Officer Klaus Schütz (Rainer Bock), or far more subtle such as the advances by her new boss, Dr André Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld), who Barbara correctly surmises is on the payroll of the Stasi (albeit reluctantly), her response is the same – to cut herself herself from everyone but her patients and her wealthy West German boyfriend whose work justifies frequent trips to the East, Jörg (Mark Waschke).
It is clear that this is not Barbara’s natural state of being – she lights up dramatically on those rare occasions when she sees Jörg, who brings with him West German cigarettes, hosiary and Deutsche Marks (for an eventual escape bid from the country) and the only one with whom she can be completely herself, albeit in carefully managed slivers of time; hence there is still an air of restraint in place – but she has no choice but to maintain it in a world where it is impossible to know who you can really trust.
Of course, with the exception of an obviously smitten Dr Reisner, her newly unwanted colleagues at the hospital interpret this as Berliner snobbery, but brutalised by a system that holds her in low regard, she no longer cares, choosing to eat separately at meal times, to ride her bike in preference to frequently proffered lifts by her boss, and to spend her nights alone playing the piano or reading.
It is lonely existence, enlivened only her work at the hospital where her true passion is allowed unqualified expression without fear of censure – the care of her patients.
In that respect she and the similarly committed Dr Reisner share a strong bond, which despite her attempts to keep him at bay (she rejects almost every overture by him, at one point angrily turning on him when he sends a piano tuner unannounced to her apartment), result in ever deepening connection between the two, although not one that Barbara can even begin to acknowledge till near the end of the film when he shares his own secret with her, the one that forces him to report to the Stasi, lest it be exposed.
In what is, for the most part, a movie of restrained emotional interactions that moves with the careful, almost stultifying, pace you would expect of a world where unbridled expressions of any emotion are fraught with risk, it is the scenes with the patients where you realise that despite the privations visited on Barbara by the suffocatingly oppressive dead hand of the East German state, she has managed to hold on to the one thing they can’t take away – her selfless commitment to those in her care.
And it is this commitment, primarily to Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), who she correctly diagnoses with meningitis when the rest of the team accuses of her of falsifying illness to avoid a return to the Torgau juvenile offenders work camp, and to whom she spends much of her time reading Huckleberry Finn, that is both her salvation and the catalyst for the eventual undoing of all her carefully laid out plans for the future.
With its muted emotional tones, and slow, drawn-out pace, Barbara is a rich film where more is implied than directly revealed, where the long wide shots of the cold, windswept tree-lined rural landscape, particularly those remote places where Barbara rides on her frequent secretive trips away from town, are beautiful to behold, despite their visual austerity, and where the satisfaction of being let little by little into her painfully isolated, but not totally vanquished, world is wholly palpable.
That Barbara manages to retain her sense of humanity in a world which has long abandoned its own, and in the process also save others around her, is nothing short of remarkable, a reassurance that even in the most cruel of circumstances, the human spirit, though beleaguered and bereft of that it most needs, can ultimately remain unbowed and quietly triumphant.