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'Barbara' Star Nina Hoss Probes Cold War Germany

"You don't have to work--I earn enough," says the studly West German to the titular heroine in Christian Petzold's Cold War drama Barbara. These patronizing words will have unexpected consequences for Barbara Wolff, a doctor banished from Berlin to the boondocks for having sought an exit visa (as seen in photos 1 and 2). Now she's angling to flee the Iron Curtain and join her lover across the Baltic Sea.

It's the summer of 1980, and this woodsy swath of the GDR is bathed in hues rarely shown in Eastern Bloc stories. Nonetheless, secret police darken the horizon, and Barbara must endure searches including the sort that she as a medical professional might administer. Played with chilly restraint by Nina Hoss, the former staffer of Berlin´s prestigious Charité hospital must weigh the seduction of the West against her developing connection with a colleague (as seen in photo 3), Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld).

What guarantees the film's slow-torquing suspense is the looming question: can Barbara trust Andre? We know that he too was exiled, and is only allowed to practice medicine in exchange for serving as an informant. Yet he's gentle and thoughtful, and seems genuinely moved by art. More compellingly, he shares Barbara's devotion to their patients.

One of the film's running themes is the value of work. In Petzold's East, work’s highest expression is the Hypocratic Oath to serve humanity regardless of political or social affiliation. Lowest of lows is a parasite, which Barbara fears she will become like the kept woman she encounters who's also headed West with a man.

Recently thalo sat down with Hoss to discuss her fifth feature film with Petzold (Yella made her Best Actress at the 2007 Berlinale) and Germany's current submission for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

thalo: Describe collaborating with Petzold.

Nina Hoss: Sometimes we take these non-walks and he develops the story and I ask questions. It's very playful, but out of that comes a story and a script. I can dwell on these characters and have an impact [on the film].

th: How has living in East Berlin since 1995 prepped you for this role?

NH: I've felt the tension of these old stories that someone betrayed someone.

th: Does Barbara ever trust Andre?

NH: (Spoiler alert!) She makes the decision to trust him [when her patient Stella turns up at her doorstep]. She can't be sure. But she sees that young girl with no prospects in this country and deep in trouble. Responsibility kicks in.

th: What's Barbara thinking when her lover says she needn't work?

NH: "Maybe it's another kind of prison I'm getting into--he doesn't know me, because this job is a huge part of me and my self-esteem." Women in the East worked. That moment opens her up towards the country she wanted to leave.

th: What awaits her?

NH: It's a hopeful ending, but it might mean she goes to prison for two years. Maybe now that she has a partner she has the strength to get through it and make it in this country.

Photo credits:

Photo 1: No rest for the wary (Nina Hoss as Barbara). Photo courtesy of Adopt Films.

Photo 2: Barbara (Nina Hoss) comes under constant surveillance. Photo courtesy of Adopt Films.

Photo 3: Barbara’s Cold War with fellow pediatric surgeon Andre begins to thaw (Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld). Photo courtesy of Adopt Films.