Banished to the East German equivalent of Siberia for trying to leave the GDR in 1980, beautiful young doctor Barbara (Nina Hoss) silently and cautiously plots her escape while attending to patients at a rural hospital. Despite enduring constant surveillance and routine strip searches by the Stasi, as well as the stifling suspicion of her colleagues, she quickly proves to be a superb physician. And although Barbara remains wary of the attentions of the handsome head doctor (Ronald Zehrfeld), her iciness slowly melt as their relationship warms to the possibility of something more. Soon, the compromised tangibility of the present starts to erode her commitment to flight.
German director Christian Petzold’s latest festival favorite is tautly paced as a chamber play, and as dense with implications as a novel. It’s a melodrama without the melo—a parable of the heart that’s defined by muted, ambiguous emotions and understated aesthetics. Despite being the subject of nearly every shot in the film, Hoss maintains an air of mystery, simultaneously projecting severity, sensitivity and sensuousness throughout. The actor’s diminutively statured assertion of strength in a time and place of total vulnerability comes off as both heroic and futile, her dark-eyed gaze hungry and withering. The year may be filthy with cinematic feats of CGI implausibility, yet no special effect this year comes close to what Hoss can accomplish with simple but unbearably explosive eye contact.
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