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.
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The movie award season is upon us and historical dramas are once again front and center. One of the films now in theaters comes from Germany, a country with a long tortured history that's inspired many movies. The new film is called "Barbara." And as NPR's Bilal Qureshi reports, it explores questions that a lot of German filmmakers are asking today.
BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: World War II epics and Holocaust memoirs have become standard fare in the award season. But today's generation of German directors is working through the more recent history of East and West. For director Christian Petzold, it's also a personal history.
CHRISTIAN PETZOLD: My parents, they're refugees, from the German Democratic Republic, my first two years in the West, I'm living in a camp for displaced person.
QURESHI: Petzold says he still remembers going to visit his family while the country was divided.
PETZOLD: They're talking the same language than me, the cousins and all the people around me, I can talk to them, but they are totally different at the same moment. And for me, it was a very mysterious time. And so I start o remember this time when I start to make this movie.
QURESHI: The star of Petzold's movie is Nina Hoss. She was born in the West and was 14 when the wall came down in 1989.
NINA HOSS: When my parents said, why don't we go and have a look at this country, I always said, no, no, no. Why, why? Maybe they won't let me out again or - so I had this horror vision of the other part of Germany in my mind. But that, of course, changed. Once the wall came down, I went to East Berlin to study acting and in East Berlin school and I wanted to live in the east part of Berlin.
QURESHI: The new film "Barbara" is about a woman who wants to get out of East Germany. And for that, she's punished. She's a talented doctor who's banished to work in a rural village under constant surveillance. She's angry and on edge. This is different from the menacing oppression of the Stasi shown in the Oscar-winning "The Lives of Others."
The handlers and watchers in "Barbara" are equally vulnerable, human. And Nina Hoss says it was important to show both the ambiguity and the ordinariness of life in the former German Democratic Republic.
HOSS: If you talk to the people who lived in the GDR, they always tell you, we loved, we had kids, the grass was green, I had a wonderful childhood. So I thought it was very important for "Barbara" also to be able to show that it's hard to leave your home behind, however cruel the system is you live in.
QURESHI: However cruel, director Christian Petzold points out there were also accomplishments like those of the Agfa film company.
PETZOLD: Technicolor techniques, they were invented in the part of East Germany near Beterfeld and the German Democratic Republic has pictures of itself always very, very colorful. It's like a Jerry Lewis movie in the '50s, very fantastic red, fantastic blue. But we in the West, we make pictures of them like our imagination of socialism - gray, dirty light.
QURESHI: "Barbara" is trying to address the stereotype without glossing over the reality of that period. It's one of a series of new German films that have taken up the ghosts of a once divided country. Laurence Kardish is the former film curator at the Museum of Modern Art. He presented an annual survey of German cinema at MoMA and he says the country's filmmakers can't escape their past.
LAURENCE KARDISH: There are so many issues. It is such a turbulent history that contemporary filmmakers have to and do often refer to the events of the past hundred years, 150 years.
QURESHI: "Barbara" premiered at the Berlin Film Festival last year and both Nina Hoss and Christian Petzold live in the new German capital. It's a city that symbolizes German division and reunification. And Nina Hoss says for the artists who've made their homes there, the time to tell stories like "Barbara" is now.
HOSS: If we would have done this movie 10 years ago, it would've been very difficult to get the acceptance from the Eastern part because it was sure that if you come from the West, you can't tell our story because you didn't know anything about it. And I think Westerners also didn't even try to do it. Now, I think, by having a distance, the distance is actually quite helpful.
QURESHI: "Barbara" was filmed on location in a small town and hospital in the former East. Nina Hoss says she spoke at length with the locals and says they were grateful that Westerners came and tried to get it right.
HOSS: They were and they are still very happy that they live in a democracy now. But the way it went and that no one actually asked questions of how they lived, the West kind of got there and said, well, now you can be happy. You must be happy now. And what happened and what you went through or how beautiful it was, also, I mean, it's 40 years of their life. They can't be in vain, you know. And no one asked and that was very hurtful, I think.
QURESHI: And by getting beyond the gray stereotypes, "Barbara" is emblematic of a new generation of German films and how they're asking about their country's past to better understand its future. Bilal Qureshi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.