Starring Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld. PG. 105 min. Opens Dec. 28 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
The title character of Barbara (Nina Hoss) is stuck in the middle—it’s 1980 and she’s an East German physician with a lover in West Germany. Banished to a rural hospital as punishment for attempting to flee the country, she grudgingly acclimatizes to her new digs and weighs her options.
Director Christian Petzold has worked with Hoss before, and this is their strongest collaboration to date. The actor places her performance at the precise intersection between arrogance (condescending to her small-town surroundings) and paranoia (she gets intrusive house calls from government officials looking to keep her in line). She’s a tense, furtive heroine, and as the film goes on, Petzold keeps doubling down on her predicament. Not only is the country around her divided, but Barbara is also caught between two men—her estranged paramour and an affable colleague (Ronald Zehrfeld)—and her own conflicting desires. Should she make a break for it, or stay and tend to a sickly, pregnant, runaway patient (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) whose escapist fantasies mirror her own?
Petzold’s middle-distance camera setups and sterile visual environments are in line with his usual M.O. He’s a methodical filmmaker, and in the past, his interest in precision has resulted in films so meticulous as to almost cancel themselves out. But this time, his masterly direction accentuates rather than mutes the emotional content of the story, and the effect is powerful. The film is intelligent and polished, but it also works on a gut level, interweaving Barbara’s ethical, political, and romantic dilemmas until they feel like a big, heavy knot—in her stomach, and in ours.