In the new German film Barbara, Dr. Andre Reiser points to a print of Rembrandt's "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholaes Tulp," the surgeons' eyes riveted on a medical textbook, not on the body before them, even though the artist has subtly painted the cadaver with two right hands! Is Rembrandt imploring us not to follow old, inaccurate manuals? Might his masterpiece be a lie that tells the truth? Andre's focus on the painting suggests that he is aware that East Germany has been following the orthodox Soviet model, one that doesn't necessarily reflect the highest humanitarian principles of socialism.
The setting is 1980 East Germany, the socialist state that emerged from the ashes of Nazism. On TV, announcers thrill triumphantly to the achievements of East German athletes in the Moscow Olympics.
The viewer meets Dr. Barbara Wolff after she has been sentenced to internal exile. Once a highly regarded physician in (East) Berlin, she must now work as a doctor in a remote seacoast hospital where she will be watched closely. The harsh treatment she receives drives her to react in the only ways she knows-a forbidden romantic relationship with a West German, receiving underground Western currency, and expensive cigarettes.
Andre, head doctor of the spare but clean facility, is also watching her. He's in his own internal exile, a tradeoff he's agreed to owing to a nasty medical mistake early in his career that authorities agreed to hush up.
These wounded professionals pursue excellence in their field, while dodging the excesses of the Stasi and Volks Polizei. Frequently the film plays as a Cold War cloak-and-dagger, with secret drop off sites, apartment searches, humiliating personal cavity inspections, and daring escapes. But the protagonists work together to resolve difficult medical cases, as the erotic tension slowly builds.
When Barbara mockingly repeats back at him the standard government line, "The workers and farmers financed your studies and it's time to repay them," Andre responds, "That's not incorrect." Her training had also been financed by the people, but she does not see owing the same reciprocity.
Dr. Reiser has chosen a moral balancing act: adapting to his environment, performing far more than the minimum of his job requirements to ennoble life rather than flee an imperfect "actually existing socialism" with glaring, unnecessary (and ultimately fatal) flaws. Barbara is director Christian Petzold's honest attempt to present moral complexity without glorifying the West.
Barbara is passionately in love with her Western businessman, but when he insists that she won't have to work once she escapes to his side, she is repelled by the thought of a life of idle comfort. Barbara is not materialistic, she wants more personal freedom.
Andre is a country doctor making house calls, accepting as payment a basket of fresh vegetables. And he can cook! His ratatouille is flavored with herbs picked from his garden. He has surely made his compromises, but in a perfect world he'd be a prince. Barbara is torn: Is her place in the "free" West or here in East Germany where she can be a healer and earn the love and respect of a decent, committed, attractive man?
Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld portray the principals with sensitivity. The film, set in a bedraggled yet hardy nation, moves ponderously, but two sub-plots involving problematic patients engage our attention and empathy.
It is easy to condemn "good Germans" (of any place and time) for not doing enough to resist egregious deviations from democratic norms. Barbara asks us to walk a mile in her shoes. Can we find a way to fulfill our responsibilities as citizens, adapt to unchangeable conditions, and still retain a measure of humanity? Who knows, maybe enough humanity can change conditions
Directed by Christian Petzold
2012, 105 min., PG-13