Foreign films are difficult for me to judge. Because of the limited number of foreign films I seek out, they are things to be endured for the sake of literacy or high enjoyment. But, of course, they are simply movies made in another country in another language. They are not uniformly art house experiments of interest only to film scholars. They have a right and ability to be both good and of limited scope. But if a film is going to be limited in scope, then its power lies in the acting and an American (or at least this American) cannot accurately judge the line delivery of a foreign language above mediocrity. A poor performance can be spotted quite easily. However, anything above that depends on inflection and expression which cannot be judged by one ignorant of the language.
Dr. Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss) has been relocated to provincial East Germany in 1980 after attempting to leave the country. She had been a very talented and successful doctor in Berlin, but is now under the eye of the Stasi the state security service of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), represented by Klaus Schütz (Rainer Bock). At any time, they can come into the apartment allocated for her—remember, there is no property in a communist state—and search it and her person without any notice or recourse. She is not trusted by the state. And for good reason. When her application is denied, she puts her plan of escape into action. Dr. André Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld) is the head doctor at her new hospital and tries to gain her trust and affection. This has little effect on her until a series of medical cases become more important to her than her escape.
Example. The German language is rather close to the English so you can read the line quickly and then basically superimpose the English in your mind, but sometimes that is a laughable exercise. One line read out two words—something like, “Not really”—but the German was four or five words. Another bit of dialogue was two full subtitle lines long but the German was so concise that I missed the translation. Then, of course, the syntax is different so you can’t line up the verbs quite right. That’s to say nothing of idioms and what ordinary Germans sound like when they’re ominous, strained, afraid, or expressing any other emotion.
Faces are faces the world over, so acting without dialogue is universal and may be judged. But that’s only half the story for the vast majority of films. The same is true of writing. Wit is the centerpiece of English taste and, shall we say, a garnish of American style. Some lines hold their power in a simile or metaphor which translates easily, but a pun is virtually impossible to imitate and meter can only achieve an echo. A favorite line of Stephen Fry’s from The Importance of Being Earnest: “I hope, Cecily, I shall not offend you if I state quite frankly and openly that you seem to me to be in every way the visible personification of absolute perfection.” Now, I’ve listened to the German, and it isn’t quite the same.
Thus, I am afraid that I could never fully appreciate Barbara (2012), directed and written (with Harun Farocki) by Christian Petzold. That is said in regret because there was so much greatness apparent that one could hardly doubt the power of that which was indiscernible. It has all of the elements of the great films of this generation. It is understated, the filming is detached, it is gritty, the soundtrack is sparse, it prefers showing to telling (doubly gratifying here), and is, despite what I said before, superbly acted. These elements do not guarantee excellence (Wuthering Heights (2012) is a prime example that grit can be histrionic), but they are the hallmark of excellence today.
That said, sparse scoring is a lost opportunity for many films, including Barbara, but at least it does remove the danger of poor taste. Silence does not harm. There’s strong reason to believe that Petzold might have ruined the film. The song that plays while the credits roll, a live version of “At Last I Am Free” by Chic, is perhaps the least appropriate sound put to a film. Compare that with the piano piece by Chopin which Barbara plays that is near perfect—can’t do better for sorrow than a nocturne. But since the pop tune plays over the credits, it cannot count against the director (in the same way that Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” did not improve Colombiana (2011)).
Petzold’s main innovation seems to be his portrayal of East Germany as something other than an urban gulag. As he put it “East Germany has often appeared quite de-saturated. No colors, no wind, only the gray of border crossings and the fatigued faces…” But he did not succumb to the cliché. He also decided not to over work the film. “We didn’t want any symbols. You just end up decoding them and what’s left is what you knew all along.” That is so refreshing. They just play it out and let the audience come to its own conclusions.
Example. There’s a tension in the movie between a preconception of a communist country and the realities of a provincial communist country. From the start, I accept the premise that any sane person would leave East Germany if given the chance, and there are strong forces that confirm that concept, but there is the life she leaves behind that, while not glamorous or materially cluttered, does have room for warmth and beauty and life. This is the rosiest because, as Petzold says, “All that fear and suppression was happening between the people. That’s where it worked. All the beauty, love and liberty were poisoned by mistrust.”
There’s a lot to the film, thematically, that’s very interesting. The style is well suited to express them because these themes are ambiguous. But that determined vagueness does make it hard to compartmentalize. This sounds like a compliment, but in a way I distrust it. How can I tell the difference between an accurate image of rural, 1980 East Germany and an inaccurate one?
What made Argo (2012) so pleasing in this way was the many proofs and images that were clear but unremarked upon. There’s a moment where the Iranian customs official scratches out the word “Kingdom” on the passport stamp and writes in “Islamic Republic”. It says so much about without actually saying a word. That’s totally absent in Barbara. The Stasi come in without any sense of restriction, one line tells us that apartments are allocated, and prostitutes work for “presents” rather than money. These aren’t as loaded as the example in Argo despite the fact that they express something far graver. But that gravity wasn’t necessarily felt day-to-day by all citizens, and that’s where a few more red stars might have helped.
It’s a very watchable film and worth seeing for those who like a good atmosphere. But do not expect Black Book (2006) or something plot-driven that would appeal to a mainstream American audience. Or, to be more charitable, do not expect something that would appeal to a mainstream American film distributor.