The Oscars normally count as the official page turn from one film year to the next. After the Academy Awards, the rush to see the previous year’s best and brightest films slows down, and the focus turns toward the year ahead. This is especially easy out in big cities, like New York City and Los Angeles, where almost all of the independent and foreign movies show up without almost any waiting.
In Milwaukee? It is certainly a growing film city and getting better every single year, but for many studios – especially the smaller ones with equally tiny distribution budgets – Cream City still a relatively small market located in the stereotypically not-so-highbrow Midwest. Sometimes, it feels like independent and foreign films could get here faster via the Pony Express.
Hopefully, you haven’t packed up and left 2012 in the dust quite yet, because "Barbara," playing this weekend at the UWM Union Theatre, is one of the hidden gems of last year.
German director Christian Petzold’s Cold War drama stars Nina Hoss as the titular character, a Berlin doctor banished to the beautiful countryside of 1980s East Germany after she applied to leave the country. She still secretly plots with her lover (Mark Waschke) to flee the GDR, but while those plans are in development, she works at a small local hospital under the supervision of the kind but GDR-controlled Dr. Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld).
"Barbara" isn’t high on big emotion or theatrics, but Petzold’s film is all the more effective for it. It’s a quietly observant film, building a slow simmer of tension under its calm, naturally gorgeous looks.
Petzold and co-writer Harun Farocki’s deliberately crafted intensity begins with their main character. For much of the film, Barbara is a fascinating mystery to both her co-workers and the audience. She seems cold and distant from her associates – one character calls her "sulky" – but she’s remarkably caring and knowledgeable when it comes to the hospital’s young patients, especially a young pregnant work-camp escapee.
She’s an intriguing character – made even more so by Hoss’s captivatingly natural and nuanced performance that hints at Barbara’s inner struggles and peels away at her cold, cautious veneer. She holds the audience’s attention tightly and doesn’t let go for 105 minutes.
Her character has reason to be cautious. Everyone seems to be watching her, even when they’re simply random bus passengers. The sound of a car parking outside her sparse apartment could simply be an innocent neighbor or a silently intimidating Stasi officer (Rainer Bock, a quietly horrifying presence) coming in for a reckless house raid and humiliating cavity check. Much like how they develop Barbara’s character, Petzold and Farocki slowly and naturally build the sense of paranoia haunting every scene.
"Barbara" is certainly a slow burn and a modest one at that, but it’s marvelously intense while also personal and human. Each character on screen feels complete and lived-in, which makes the film’s dramas – big and small – seem even more potent.
Petzold’s film may have taken its sweet time getting to Milwaukee, but considering its hushed power and emotion, it’s better late than never.
"Barbara": ***1/2 (See it tonight or tomorrow)
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