This review was first published Dec. 21, 2012.
It was, quite naturally, ignored by the Academy Awards in their February sweepstakes, but the best screen performance of last year was by Nina Hoss, playing the title character in Christian Petzold's "Barbara." A sturdy suspense story, set in Stasi-infected East Germany, rich in moral compromise, individual integrity and general desperation, it's elevated by Hoss to something sublime and unforgettable, partly because she defies you to figure her out.
Petzold, whose "Jerichow" (2008) was an acidic take on "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (and also starred Hoss), allows Barbara's story to unfold in delicately graduated increments, but the basics are established in about five introductory minutes: In 1980 East Germany, the recently jailed doctor has been shipped off to a country hospital where she will be oppressively monitored, not just by the local Stasi thug Shutz (Rainer Bock) but by her own colleagues. Even the bearish, kindly department head, Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), is part of the intelligence infrastructure, though he hates it and wants to be liked by the new arrival from Berlin, who immediately outclasses her co-workers and earns their predictable resentment.
Hoss delivers us a character who is stern, angry and indignant, and who struggles to preserve her personal dignity in the face of constant harassment and the occasional cavity search by a glove-snapping female Stasi operative. What she's not "in any sense" is a one-dimensional poster girl for Teutonic emotional austerity. She makes fools of the authorities with her clandestine plotting and her West German lover; when the persecuted delinquent Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) arrives at the hospital after one more failed escape attempt from a work camp ("extermination camp," Barbara corrects Andre), it's Barbara she clings to, and Barbara who has to make the decisions for everyone. The only decision moviegoers should make is to see this movie on a screen before it, too, escapes.
PLOT A doctor in '80s East Germany is relegated to a country hospital, where she continues to lead a dangerous double life.
CAST Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Rainer Bock
BOTTOM LINE Gripping, startlingly adult drama that in a logical world would make a star of Nina Hoss. (In German with English subtitles)