Tuesday, January 01, 2013

"Barbara": an East German doctor faces moral dilemmas seeking freedom

One aspect of totalitarian political systems is that they try to implement “fairness” and “morality” by limiting the relative activity and wealth of each individual person.  That was always visible to my generation until the 1990s with Communism.

In “Barbara”, around 1980, a female physician (Nina Hoss) is banished to a small town in East Germany after she has applied for an exit visa to leave East Germany.   With her job, she gets a small apartment (with an out of tune piano), shared latrine, and daily building chores as well as her job. It’s like being in the Army.
She encounters some money which could buy her an escape plan by sea.  In some early scenes, she bikes to the wind-swept beach to hide it.  She also befriends, however platonically, another doctor there Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) and also a sexy westerner (Deniz Petzold).  She has a secret affair with the westerner, which is quite explicit in making “him” as attractive as possible (gay audiences will like these heterosexual scenes).  A plan to escape comes into being.

But her duties at the hospital create conflicts and moral dilemmas complicating her escape plan.  There is a pregnant girl who has also tried to escape a work detail, and a boy who, having tried suicide, needs a brain operation.  To do her job as a doctor or as a human being would require real sacrifice.

This is a world of secret police, apartment searches, and rationing, all in the name of "the proletariat" (or "the proles").  The scenes of her riding a one-car self-propelled train through flat country are curious.  
The official site is here. The US distributor is Adopt Films. 

In the middle of the film, Andre tells a backstory of how he got shipped to an exile like Barbara’s .  At one time, he had tried to implement a new kind of incubator, and a resident under his supervision made a mistake causing a baby to go blind.  I know that this used to be a problem with incubators.  I worked with a legally blind woman at the Minnesota Orchestra to whom this had happened when she was a baby. She actually described herself jokingly as a “communist”.

I actually know of someone who believes that the fall of the Berlin Wall and unification of Germany was not a good thing, and mentioned her on my International Issues blog Nov. 1, 2009.  Some people do not like the level of personal competitiveness that freedom seems to require, but the same moral dilemmas occur in a free society. 

 This film could be compared to “The Lives of Others” (2006, “Das Leben der Anderen”, Sony), by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck). 

I visited Dresden in 1999 (in former East Germany) as well as Berlin.  At the Connection Disco, I met a graduate student who had been born in Leipzig but emigrated to Britain.  In 1972, on another trip, I could see the East German border from a train north from Frankfurt.  I have been in Hamburg but not in the coastal section of the former communist East Germany (the site of the film).

Wikipedia has this picture of modern Dresden.  

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