Until telepathy becomes a human trait, we will always retain the freedom to think of whom and what we choose. We can be restricted in where we go, what we read, even to whom we speak; but no oppressive government – and the history of human governance is merely the chronicle of these tyrannies’ demise – has as yet succeeded in fully breaching our inner securities. We have assisted them, however, by doing it ourselves: we have succumbed, and comprised, and relented, all for the sake of the thin hope that the future couldn’t possibly be as grim (as some, unfortunately bereft of irony, have commented: we have helped lay the bricks to our own prisons). But like in any unholy cult of personality or citizenship, sacrifices for some preposterous common aim are expected, sacrifices which oftentimes assume the shape of our nearest and dearest. And soon we find we have betrayed our most intimate circles solely to elude our own destruction. An appropriate preamble to this fine film.
The year is 1980 and our titular female is Dr. Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss), late of Berlin’s renowned Charité hospital and now ensconced in a less glamorous, rural setting not far from this city. Our first glimpse of Dr. Wolff is on a lonely bench, smoking as she always seems to be doing (in one scene she studies a serum beneath a microscope while still holding a gasper aloft), her eyes determined not to divulge their inklings. “She’s always like that,” says an unmistakable voice. “If she were six years old, you’d say she was sulky.” The you invoked is Dr. André Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld) who, while casually spying on his newest physician, is also considering other matters: her intelligence, her vulnerability, and, of course, the fact that, despite her jagged edges, she is gracile and pretty. The unmistakable voice belongs to a beady-eyed man called Schütz (Rainer Bock), and his agenda will resemble the agendas of so many other unmistakable operatives who bide their time waiting, as it were, for others to make mistakes. A wrinkle in his otherwise straitlaced story will surface much later on, one which might explain why so many characters in the credits share his surname. For the nonce, however, his purpose is clear: Barbara Wolff is under surveillance for having sought work in the West, a crime whose punishment will not involve a conventional jail, but the isolation and obscurity of the country doctor. Schütz burdens Reiser with this information and in so doing makes him an accomplice – although in East Germany the number of such abettors was so enormous that Reiser is in no way remarkable. Furnished with this subterfuge from the opening scene, we have few illusions about what Reiser may or may not suspect; but like so many others recruited or press-ganged into intelligence work, he develops a certain sympathy towards his mark. That is why when Barbara glides by a cafeteria table in utter ignoration of her colleagues, he decides to give her a ride home and explain the lay of land. "You shouldn't cordon yourself off that way," he tells her (Sie sollten sich nicht so separieren), as people here are "very sensitive," especially towards someone once employed at the most famous hospital of the most famous divided city in the world. Compared to such a person "they would feel second class" (Sie fühlen sich bald zweite Klasse), to which Barbara inquires whether Reiser's opting for the bourgeois separieren (instead of, say, the proletarianly Teutonic trennen) comprises his own attempt not to sound "second class." That Reiser also finds her house without having asked for directions disabuses Barbara of any last hope that an unmistakable plan is afoot.
While references to class distinctions and the so-called "second world" are hardly coincidental, mere minutes into Barbara two potential storylines have already been eliminated: the boilerplate melodrama of a shy and successful outsider pigeonholed by locals as a snob, and the cloak-and-dagger oneupmanship of the standard issue spy thriller. Instead, we are obliged to examine closely our two protagonists, who are both caregivers and victims – as well as in each other's way, if you know what I mean. Barbara withdraws to her modest abode complete with untuned piano, a shortcoming not lost on Reiser, who uses his connections to send for a tuner. With that tuner comes a written report that might terrify the average burgher; at least, so we think given the previous scene's confession as to how Reiser, a gifted physician in his own right, came to this hinterland. Barbara listens with like incredulity to this story and Reiser's dilettantish theory about this much-discussed painting; only this Russian tale will finally convince her of her colleague's desires, and at this point it might be all too late. Too late? It gives nothing away to reveal that Barbara is precisely what she appears to be: that is, a flight risk. She has burn-upon-reading notices and other sensitive materials which she hides in her stovepipe, a series of remote drop-off points, and, most importantly perhaps, a lascivious and affluent boyfriend, Jörg (Mark Waschke), who cannot wait to export her into his Western world where she no longer has to play doctor and "can sleep in every day." During a hotel tryst with Jörg, the latter's fellow interloper beds Steffi (Susanne Bormann), a young East German whose cries of lust literally come from the other side of a wall – behind which, of course, lies paradise. As Steffi asks Barbara her tastes in a wedding ring catalogue – Jörg's friend has already made promises of the unkeepable kind – Barbara cannot help but stare at this simple, desperate girl who would love to sleep in every day, provided that day does not rise too far to the East. There are also the ethical diversions supplied by two sick teenagers, Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) and Mario (Jannik Schümann), one of whom is suicidal and likely brain-damaged, the other bent on escaping a work camp that cannot possibly exist anymore in the great civilization called Europe. That bedside Barbara reads to Stella from this book instead of this one should tell us all we need to know about their relationship.
The brilliance of Petzold’s film lies not only in the two protagonists’ mutual misgivings, but in how their intuitions continue to twist their fate. Privy to Dr. Wolff’s plans, as they are slowly unfurled, and to the fact that Reiser knows of her past indiscretions, we still sense that Barbara very slowly comes to trust or at least to understand her colleague. Yet it is Reiser who remains the unknown quantity. Blubbery, fuzzy-featured, and all too keen on impressing a Berliner, his acts of kindness may be more acting than beneficence (at junctures we also wonder whether he knows too much about Stella's personal history). In one scene, as Barbara appears to be asleep, he scrutinizes her Western cigarettes, and we cannot tell whether fear, admiration, or duty to report such contraband brings a smile to his face. Then at the very middle of Barbara, Reiser will deride her West German currency, leading to their first joint bout of laughter: they have become allies, even if the goal of their alliance is not yet clear (at another confederative moment Reiser will switch, likewise without precedent, to the informal du). They pedal their bikes together just like you're supposed to do in a romance and briefly seem far away from their drab reality; he invites her to "the most beautiful place I know," male shorthand for a proposition; and claiming she hates the sea, she retreats to her piano and her effortless talent. But it is another scene, one in which Barbara finds Reiser with a very unexpected patient, that shunts her down a track of fateful decision. And what about that odd gift, a bountiful basket of vegetables, which all tidily resolve into one tasty dish? Perhaps pure chance, even if chance may be minimized in a realm of unmistakable aims. And after all, what is life if not a few too many coincidences?