The historical drama is a staple of the film awards season, and the tortured history of modern Germany — with its echoes of the brutal Third Reich and war — has played a central role in many an award-winning film. But the new film Barbara, which was Germany's official entry to this year's Oscars, is a nuanced portrait of the more recent history of a newly reunited East and West.
Its title character is a woman torn between her lover in the West and her life as a doctor in communist East Germany in the early 1980s. As the film opens, Barbara has been punished for her attempts to flee across the border and is banished to a rural village in Brandenburg. She's under the constant surveillance of the Stasi's intelligence agents, and underneath her cool exterior she's gradually coming undone.
Barbara opened at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival and became a critical success in Germany and across Europe last year. Star Nina Hoss says the film's success lies in its attempts to revisit the painful history of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) with respect and nuance. Its moral ambiguity and ordinariness is a reflection of the everyday lives of those who lived behind the Berlin Wall, but it's also a chance to show that cruelty and repression could also be very subtle.
"If you talk to the people who lived in the GDR, they always tell you, 'I mean we loved, we had kids, the grass was green and I had a wonderful childhood.' " Hoss says. "So I thought it was very important for Barbara to be able to show it's hard to leave your home behind, however cruel the system is you live in."
Barbara is one of a series of new German films that have taken up the ghosts of a once-divided country. Its intimacy, gracefulness and vibrancy is a reflection of director Christian Petzold's effort to get beyond the stark, gray portrayals of socialism in films like the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others.
Petzold notes that the Agfa film company developed color film in part of what became East Germany.
"The German Democratic Republic has pictures of itself, always very, very colorful. It's like a Jerry Lewis movie in the '50s ... fantastic red, fantastic blue," Petzold says. "But we in the West, we make pictures of them like our imagination of socialism — gray, dirty light."
For both the filmmaker and for Hoss, Barbara is also a chance to work through personal history. Christian Petzold was born in East Germany and came to the West as a refugee. He remembers growing up in a camp for displaced persons and says the memories of those times were with him as he began to write the film. Hoss is from Stuttgart, in the West, and she still remembers the day the Wall came down when she was 14.
"I had a horror vision of the other part of Germany," Hoss says. But after 1989, the actress wanted to live in the former East and now lives in the reunified capital of Berlin.
Laurence Kardish, former film curator at the Museum of Modern Art, says German filmmakers and artists who call the city home can't escape the past.
"There are so many issues," he says. "It's such a turbulent history that contemporary filmmakers have to and do often refer to the events of the past."
Barbara was filmed on location in the former East and at a hospital that operated under the GDR. Hoss says she spoke at length with locals, who were grateful that Westerners came and tried to get it right.
"They were and they are still very happy that they live in a democracy now, but ... nobody asked questions of how they lived," Hoss says. "The West kind of got there and said, 'Now you can be happy.' ... I mean it's 40 years of their lives. ... They can't be in vain. And no one asked."
By getting beyond those gray stereotypes, Barbara is emblematic of a new generation of German films that are asking questions about their country's past to better understand its future.