Set in East Germany in 1980, Christian Petzold's superb Barbara is a transfixing Cold War thriller made even more vivid by its subtle overlay of the golden-era "woman's picture," the woman in question being Dr. Barbara Wolff, brilliantly played by Nina Hoss in her fifth film with the writer-director. Yet Petzold intricately retools genre rather than slavishly adheres to it, using familiar templates to offer fresh perspectives on historical rifts and wounds. We first see Barbara-- lean, rigid, remote-- stepping off a bus a mere minute before beginning her new job at a pediatric hospital in a province in the German Democratic Republic. Previously employed at a prestigious clinic in Berlin, she has been reassigned to the boonies as punishment for applying for an exit visa. "She won't even be one second early," Stasi agent Klaus (Rainer Bock) says to André (Ronald Zehrfeld), the hospital's burly head physician, as both men stare at the blond M.D. from a window two stories above. Klaus and his state-security goons appear at Barbara’s doorstep or linger in parked cars outside her apartment building intermittently, just long enough so that their reign of terror sticks in the mind without overwhelming the movie. Tense and impeccably plotted, Barbara is punctuated by indelible details and builds to an act of enormous sacrifice that links our heroine to the great maternal altruists of '30s and '40s cinema whose names also served as film titles (Stella Dallas, Mildred Pierce). But unlike those martyrs, Barbara's action is impelled not by masochism or self-abnegation but by a sense of duty both to herself and her vocation.
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