DVD Watch: Barbara

Morality takes center stage in this quiet marvel of 2012

Nina Hoss in Barbara
Nina Hoss in Barbara

As we scurry to see all the year-end releases of 2013, consider making time for Barbara, one of the best foreign-language films of 2012, which debuts today on DVD ($29.95) and Blu-ray ($34.95).

Barbara bypassed Austin screens altogether last year, as do most of the select films released by the tiny distribution outfit Adopt Films (although a couple of Adopt’s films that have opened in Austin – The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye and Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction – give a sense of the company’s unorthodox tastes). This film by Christian Petzold, one of Germany’s most influential filmmakers and television directors, is a quiet marvel of understated actions and motivations. Winner of the Silver Bear for Direction at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival, Barbara also took the silver at the German Film Awards.

Set in East Germany in 1980, nearly a decade before the Berlin Wall toppled, Barbara makes us privy to the strange, paranoid world that was the German Democratic Republic. The Stasi, the East German police, observed and reported on citizen indiscretions as so vividly depicted in the 2006 film, The Lives of Others. No one could be trusted because everyone was capable of being an informer or collaborator. It was a drab world marked by shabby apartments, tin-can automobiles, and a scarcity of consumer goods.

Thrust into this world is Barbara, a physician who has been sent to the provinces as punishment. Barbara is played by Nina Hoss, who marks her fifth collaboration with Petzold with this film. Formerly a doctor at a prestigious hospital in Berlin, Barbara fell in love there with a man from the West and asked for a transfer. Instead, she receives a prison term and banishment to a ramshackle hospital in the countryside upon her release. These events occur prior to the start of the film, so we learn these things about Barbara from observation of the character and those watching her. The film’s economy of storytelling makes the viewer work to understand what has transpired – both in the past and the present.

Barbara remains stand-offish toward her new colleagues, waiting for the day of her planned escape. But life intervenes, and she’s faced with constant moral decisions. Unhappiness, she learns, is a relative state, and even her worst enemies have reasons for their behaviors in this mixed-up police state. Sent to the countryside with the admonition that she must give back to the farmers and workers who paid for her education, Barbara, in a personal breakthrough and ultimate irony, may become a model citizen. This is a film in which morality takes center stage.

Also New This Week:

Frances Ha (Criterion, Blu-ray, $39.95) is one of 2013’s great independent films, a creative collaboration between director Noah Baumbach and star Greta Gerwig in which being a young, reasonably talented New Yorker never seemed more daunting.

• Also, as David Gordon Green is currently under way shooting his next film, Manglehorn, around Austin, catch up with his last released film, Prince Avalanche (Magnolia; DVD, $26.98; Blu-ray, $29.98), an offbeat comedy starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch, that was filmed in Bastrop.

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DVD Watch, Barbara, Adopt Films, Germany, Christian Petzold, Nina Hoss, Prince Avalanche, David Gordon Green, Manglehorn, Frances Ha, Criterion Collection

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