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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 19.0° F  A Few Clouds
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The police state corrupts East German citizens in Barbara
A nation of snitches
Barbara's boss keeps close tabs on her.
Barbara's boss keeps close tabs on her.

In case anyone's not sure what's at stake, there are the body cavity searches.

The chilling drama Barbara stars Nina Hoss as an East German doctor who has been banished by the state to the provinces. It's 1980. The collapse of the Soviet empire is only a few years away, though no one knows that yet.

Barbara is under constant surveillance. Her apartment is regularly searched. From time to time, a policewoman snaps on a rubber glove and tells Barbara to bend over.

It's harrowing stuff. These scenes are a grim portrayal of a dismal time, and they remind us why people wanted to flee East Germany, as Barbara does. The grimness is important to keep in mind, because the miracle of this emotionally and morally intricate film is that it suggests there may also have been plausible reasons to stay.

Hoss plays Barbara with tight-lipped intensity. She's distant from her colleagues at the hospital where she arrives at the beginning of the film. A compassionate healer, she's drawn to her patients, especially a young woman (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) who has escaped from a prison camp.

At first Barbara resents her new supervisor, a young doctor (Ronald Zehrfeld) named André. In collusion with a police agent (Rainer Bock), André keeps tabs on Barbara. Numerous people keep tabs on her, in fact, including a creepy landlady who's the archetype of an Eastern Bloc snitch.

East Germany was a nation of snitches, of course. But, Barbara implies, they may not all have been monsters. We learn that André, who is basically kind, ended up a police informant because of a particular set of tragic circumstances. He's not happy about his task. One of the cruelties of police states, it seems, is that they put good people in impossible dilemmas.

From time to time Barbara slips away for trysts with her Western lover (Mark Waschke), who helps plan her escape. They have sex, and then he gives her luxury goods. There's a tawdriness to this relationship, a point that is brought home when Barbara meets an Eastern prostitute whose Western client gives her baubles.

Barbara's lover tells her that he will support her when she arrives in the West, so she won't have to work anymore. In the East she is a respected professional, so this news presumably gives her pause. But the exchange isn't dwelled on. It's to director and co-writer Christian Petzold's credit that he doesn't overemphasize this wrenching development, or the other ones.

The Cold War is a fast-receding memory. People old enough to recall that time really ought to see Barbara. That goes double for people too young to remember it.

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