Biking to Work: a review of “Barbara” (2012)

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Some films are squirt guns that shoot something onto the front of your viewfinder and distress you.  These are the unsubtle ones.  Others are a body of water like a lake or pond that you can wade into, or a summer shower that spreads over you.  Barbara is the latter kind of film.

Barbara is a striking and ambitious young doctor from Berlin living out a purgatorial existence in an out-of the way agricultural province of Communist East Germany in the early eighties.  She has a mind for cutting-edge research and the pace of the metropolis, but occupies this more pedestrian post because “the farmers and craftsmen paid for your education, and they need you here.”  She suffers frequent invasions of privacy under the humorless watch of local Stasi agent Klaus Schutz, who suspects she’s planning an escape.  His suspicions are justified.

I found the small town where she works agreeably depopulated.  Some of my favorite films (Valhalla Rising, A Single Man) have quiet, still settings with sparse habitation, that stand in stark relief to the few characters, leaving them alone with their choices and accentuating the gravity of their words.  Barbara bicycles down sandy paths to the hospital, past a forest, through a town, along a line of trees buffeted by brine winds from a North Sea beach just over the hills that will feature prominently in her coming bid for freedom.

Her only companion is chief surgeon Andre, a big, bearded, soft-spoken lad obviously smitten with Barbara from the first.  He makes various attempts at establishing friendly relations with her, which she rebuffs as she knows he has orders from the capital to gain her trust and report on her.  But Andre- literate, witty, idiosyncratic, with his personal warmth and affinity for Rembrandt and books about rural doctors and talent for cooking- is not a good communist.  He is an individual, like Barbara, and she comes to see this- to see him.

A profound scene occurs about midway through when Barbara has a clandestine rendezvous at a hotel with her West German lover who informs her that she won’t have to work on the other side because he makes enough money for them both. While he is away at a meeting, a prostitute wanders through the connecting door to Barbara’s room.  She is spending the night with another Westerner, and is starstruck by his promises to marry her and a gift- a jewelry catalogue.  As the girl pores over the pages of trinkets wide-eyed, Barbara does her best to feign interest.

From where we stand, atop the rubble of the Berlin Wall and Fukuyama’s End of History and Friedman’s Flat World, it may be hard at first blush to get into the dilemma.  We know that a few short years later, the Iron Curtain will be rolled back.  But Barbara doesn’t.  She sees no end to the system she labors under. Much is at stake- not only her dreams and ambitions, but those of a patient of hers, a pregnant girl who repeatedly escapes from a nearby forced labor camp, only to end up in a sickbed, wanting hope and something better for her child someday.

Barbara is a woman and a professional torn between places, ideologies, and people. No one is a cardboard cutout, even Klaus the Stasi agent, whose dying wife Andre treats on the side. All are victims of a system that simultaneously oppresses them and shapes the possibility space for their choices, in part making them who they are.  I recommend Barbara for its depth, its perspicacity, its subtlety, its resonance.