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Barbara takes place in a world of such profound paranoia that it’s never certain whether the title character is being overly cautious or reckless. Set in 1980s East Germany amongst intense Stasi surveillance, the film seethes with tension, but it isn’t your typical thriller. The suspense lies in whether the characters will be able to lead the lives that they want to lead.

This is the fifth collaboration between German writer/director Christian Petzold and actress Nina Hoss. They last worked together in Jerichow (2008), a mesmerizing tale of simmering sexual tension. Petzold likes to quietly peer into his characters’ souls, and Hoss’s face provides the perfect window. She is at once emotive and mysterious. Her performance demands constant attention, lest a telling movement of the eyes slips by unnoticed. It’s hard to imagine Petzold pulling off the film without the undercurrent of emotions Hoss supplies.

Her character is a doctor from Berlin sent by the government to a small country town to work in the local hospital. Petzold makes known precisely what needs to be known and little else, refusing to bog-down the film with lengthy exposition. Barbara’s small-town assignment comes as a form of exile after her incarceration. Her offense is never stated, but she must undergo regular searches from an inspector (Rainer Bock) who enjoys invading her apartment. She never knows who will be watching when she looks out the window.

Amongst unavoidable feelings of paranoia and bitterness, Barbara has to juggle multiple aims. When she can get away, she secretly communicates with her West German boyfriend and plans to escape the country. There’s a particular poignancy when she meets a younger, less educated East German woman who also has a boyfriend from the other side of the wall. At the hospital, most of her colleagues immediately take her for a snooty Berliner, but her superior, André (Ronald Zehrfeld), insists on assaulting her with friendliness. She immediately recognizes that he is trying to manipulate her—perhaps even spy on her—but he persists. She also forms a friendship with one of her patients, Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), a young woman whose future may be a casualty of the government’s policies. Barbara wants to get herself out of the country, but she also feels a medical and parental responsibility to her patients, especially ones like Stella with uncertain futures.

If you only look at its raw ingredients, the story is common. A woman acts coldly to those around her to keep a distance, while a man tries to counter her guarded exterior with an offer of warm friendship. There’s a well worn path that Barbara could go down, but the film is too attuned with its time and place to follow a standard formula.

Barbara’s situation is complicated, and her unwelcoming personality has as much to do with practicality as it does emotional scars. She can’t let down her guard, lest she expose herself to more of the Stasi’s wrath. Nothing could be more foolish than putting faith in a man she knows is supposed to keep an eye on her.

The unflappably friendly André poses a conundrum. He seems to be opening himself up to Barbara, but every nice gesture he makes or heartbreaking story he tells has a flip side: It could all be a calculated move to win her trust. Living in her situation, Barbara cannot afford the risk involved in trusting him. And so she has to make a routine of rebuking his friendship. Zehrfeld conveys a sense of liberation with Barbara—suggesting that the relationship gives André relief from his own repression.

While the screenplay may overplay its symbolism in places, Petzold and cinematographer Hans Fromm achieve an atmospheric and efficient visual style that, coupled with Hoss’s performance, gives the film an aura of urgency and desperation. Perhaps the ending, punctuated by a silent moment of understanding, is inevitable, but it doesn’t feel that way when the characters are searching for freedom and peace in their minuscule yet important lives.

Director: Christian Petzold
Writers: Christian Petzold & Harun Farocki
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Rainer Bock
Release Date: Dec. 21, 2012