Our look must be sharp. It must be intimate and intense. Long and ardent it must be suffused with the tenderest admiration; and full of the most compelling curiosity – we are looking at a portrait by Sargent we have not seen before. Our look… How shall I describe it? It is like that of a lover’s in the first weeks of a new affair – infatuated and ignorant. You remember? A time when love is a beautiful but cruel beast. What a monster! And we… we are like a cat in a strange house – highly strung and full of doubt, scared at our own footsteps. Explorers in an undiscovered land we are astounded by its beauty and overwhelmed by its strangeness; we frighten ourselves with imaginary dangers – one false word and our love, we are sure, will run away. So… we try to learn all about her, and as quickly as possible. We talk. And listen. And we admire her beauty in all its lovely nakedness. We create it. She is our invention, and we revere her for as long as we have the art to do so - for the months, years, even decades, that we live together. Decades, you say? Ja! Some women are forever recreated within the mind of the lover; they do not stop - each day they remove the wrinkles, thicken the hair, plump up the breasts, tease out a fragile smile; each day they add new layers of nuance to her words and gestures. Every morning a new studio session begins... This is her power: she is the life long muse for the artist who never grows old.
I know. We have shot up into the stratosphere. Let us bring the rocket back to earth: she is like an antique table we restore to its original condition; its beauty, revealed by a skilful and loving hand, a testimony to our own taste and craftsmanship.
Do such women exist? Of course they do! Barbara is one.
You understand? We must look with the eyes of a lover. Although we need to be a little more precise… It is that look of adoring confidence, the lover’s first freedom, on the first morning after the first night; that rapturous arrival home after a long and anxious journey. “I love you, and now I can look at you without shyness or self-consciousness.” Of course we would not articulate the thought in such a clumsy way - we do not want to lose our love! Our freedom is simply to look. It is a freedom André Reiser desires above all else.
Barbara stands before us in her white petticoat. We look at her slim and comely figure, and at the intelligence of her distinguished head; its eyes two black roundels in an expressive face that suggests a history too profound to reveal in casual conversation. Those eyes. Two beautiful ponds that are also a warning – too deep here! She stands in her petticoat. We see the outline of her knickers, and a silver bra strap. The clothes are poor. Yet their cheap simplicity - the lack of lace or decoration, that absence of fussiness - enhances her beauty, highlighting her detached dignity; composed of her slender physique and her majestic head, its prominent forehead emphasised by a tight bun.
She has been disturbed while doing her make up – Barbara is a nurse and has slept over in the hospital. To have intruded on such a private scene makes André uncomfortable. He is in love, and like all unrequited lovers he is self-conscious around the loved one. Embarrassed by his own presence, he fears it may be misread – is it really an accident that he is standing here, looking at her semi-naked body? Although compulsively attracted to the object of his desire he bows, turns away, apologises, and leaves. She does not move. She stands in a silent and beautiful stillness. She could be a Greek statue with painted eyes and coloured hair - there is a coolness and a distance, a hardness, in her beauty that makes it otherworldly. She is unobtainable. Barbara attuned to ideas and a way of life very different from those of this small town. She is unknowable, and therefore unpredictable. The adepts worship her. The kings and queens and the common people are wary of her strangeness and supernatural force. Barbara is very beautiful. She also has immense power; the charisma of great art. It the reason the bureaucrats hate her. She exists outside the simple boundaries they have erected around their world to make it comfortable and safe.
Barbara is human. We must never forget this simple fact. She exhibits the same range of emotions as everyone else. She, like us, is disturbed by the surveillance and the police searches; those hands probing her vagina and arse for hidden documents – we assume she was a dissident in Berlin before she was exiled to this provincial town. Abused by these tiresome bureaucrats occasionally she shows weakness; thus a gesture almost of pleading when the state policeman jokes that she has a friendly visitor – Barbara must invite into her flat the officer who will do the body search (a typical example of petty maliciousness). But even here she shows remarkable self-control. Barbara is a powerful person who is able to restrain her feelings; she has a dignity that the officials, the snoopers, and this provincial population lack. Although her distinction makes them seem smaller and pettier than they actually are: ordinary people with an ordinary person’s narrow mindedness and suspicion of the unfamiliar. She forces them to be mean; because they have to work harder to defeat her: Barbara never giving up her fight for freedom; thus her constant round of secret journeys that so trouble the authorities - though a totalitarian state the DDR is unable to keep her under regular surveillance; a source of irritation for these small-minded and risk-averse bureaucrats.
There is an exception to her statuesque calm: it is when she meets her lover from West Germany. Suddenly the hard marble of her personality melts into human fluidity, as her body flows freely into caresses and kisses… For a few minutes she is able to forget herself. Her defensive self-consciousness gone, she behaves for the first time like an ordinary woman.
Independence can make you so hard! It is one of the costs of freedom.
Towards the end of the film there is a scene where Barbara weakens for a single moment. She is in André’s house, having accepted an offer of dinner. Attracted by his unusual personality, showcased by his tastes in books and his cooking skills, she allows herself a few seconds of affection - she rests her head on his shoulder, and then kisses him before quickly pulling away. She has remembered herself....
It has taken a long time for her to get even this close. It is a measure of far away Barbara is from the people in this town.
As the film progresses she begins to respond to André’s charm. He is an intelligent, sensitive and dedicated doctor, whose ideas are odd and attractive: André built his own laboratory for research, and is interested in art and literary stories about medicine, of which he has interesting things to say - he gives a brilliant reading of a Rembrandt painting about a dissection. This picture contains a “mistake”, he says, albeit one that was intended: the painter, in wanting to show what the surgeons see in the anatomical book whose pages are not visible to the viewer, paints not the real hand of a corpse but the illustration; it is a representation of some general property, and a reflection on what’s in their minds. So clever! His analysis feels spot on. But then he makes some further comments, which by going too far feel contrived and fake. These elaborations unsettle Barbara; and suggest he has exposed himself by trying to win her affection through a too flashy show of his intelligence (which he acknowledges: “I may have come across as boastful”).
She is like a cactus plant with beautiful flowers… he approaches so close, only to recoil with a thorn in his thumb.
One day they cycle together from work. He is floppy with infatuated feeling. He suggests they take the romantic route through the trees and by the sea. She brusquely rejects him – “I don’t like the sea”.
Earlier she had harshly exposed his complicity with the regime: after reluctantly accepting a car ride home she told him that he had made a mistake at the crossroads – “you should have asked me where I lived”. Barbara is always prepared for betrayal…
The locals view it differently. On her first day, and after she had corrected his misdiagnosis of a patient, a rare occurrence for André, due to a justified prejudice – the girl is a regular visitor to the hospital and is known for faking illnesses (to escape the nearby labour camp) -, she sits on a different table from him and his colleagues. They call it snobbery. Barbara, they believe, is the sophisticated Berliner looking down on the provincials.
Here is one of the questions this film raises: how much of what we see has its source in the repressive state and how much is due to the petty ways of a small community, suspicious of the big city? One suggestion is that the fundamental problem with the DDR was that its governing ethos was a provincial one; dominated by the narrow-mindedness we associate with rural communities and the common man. During one conversation Barbara bitingly quotes the official line that they should be grateful for their careers in medicine, as the workers have paid for it. The workers! That terrible populism; the enemy of all that is best and most interesting in thought and culture.
André is in love. And like any lover he tries to help the object of his infatuation. Sometimes Barbara accepts, although with extreme reluctance; thus she allows the piano tuner into her flat only after her first reflexive refusal. “I don’t like those kinds of surprises”, she later tells André. Oppressed by an inquisitive state she needs total control, and so lacks the spontaneity that deals easily with contingency – a sign of the bureaucracy’s influence upon her.
Excluded from respectable society she has been forced into an extreme individualism; Barbara lives shut up tight within her self. The result is curious: she has become a caricature of the Western ideal – a female Robinson Crusoe stranded on her own island. Her predicament shows why this idealised model is neither attractive nor feasible: without the help of others her life is impoverished – no piano tuner no music. Here she resembles the DDR. Officially shut out from the West the country nevertheless relies on it for the equipment it cannot manufacture; a grudging compromise that endangers the lives of its own citizens – thus André’s story about the incubator imported from New Zealand that caused a terrible accident through a mistranslation of its English instructions (a warning, we surmise, of the mistakes Barbara is making in trying to live by herself; her admirer is very clever).
Here is an unexpected consequence of authoritarian rule: the rebels come to resemble the regime they oppose. Shut up within herself, Barbara is like a mini-totalitarian state – she cannot allow her emotions to cross her own border gates. Always she must watch over the barbed wire fences of her personality to ensure that she does not give herself away – to the police, to colleagues, to unknown peasants on a train… Just like the state Barbara can trust no one. Both suffer a poverty of experience.
The local word for her is “separate”. The population lives in a small town. Indoctrinated into believing the girl guides version of socialism their lives tend towards a comfy communalism. André’s natural tendency is to bring Barbara into the group: by helping her make friends with the hospital staff and the people that he knows. Much of this activity arises out of his love for her, though it also comes from his naturally emollient personality, which allows him to live easily within this constrained but not overly repressive society. At the beginning she resists these friendly efforts completely. However, as their friendship develops her resistance (very) slowly weakens, until the last enigmatic but resonant scene where, having given up her chance to escape to the West, she returns to the hospital and André.
It is a marvellous moment, and ends the movie perfectly. Unannounced, she opens the ward door and walks past André and the boy lying on the bed to sit silently on a chair by the window. She looks back at André until we replace him in her line of sight. The film finishes.i
How does he interpret this? That Barbara has come back to him? That like the successful operation to recover the boy’s feelings - he is a failed suicide whose fall has removed his emotions - Barbara’s affections have returned, and now they will start a love affair? Yes, this is probably what he thinks. Yet we know it is more complicated than that. André is one of those surgeons in Rembrandt’s painting. He is looking at an ideal…
Barbara has returned to the hospital because she has sacrificed her freedom for another person. This is the only reason she has come back. Nevertheless, she has softened; the film charting a gradual shortening of the mental and emotional distance that separates her from André, until something of a friendly relationship exists between them. We are watching the weakening of her separation from the local society; actualised in the moment she agrees to sit at her colleagues’ table in the canteen. Barbara is human! She is neither a robot nor a political activist emotionally glued to some abstract cause. She is thus susceptible to the kindness latent in every social situation. And these people are not monsters. They are simply provincials with limited horizons; too accepting of a political culture they are unwilling to change. It is because of their kindness and begrudging tolerance that Barbara adapts to her environment. Softening just a little, she finds André increasingly attractive; his connections to the regime less important than his sensitivity and his medical vocation. He is more human than bureaucrat; his quirks compensating for the official chores - the low level spying and reporting - which are an inconsequential part of his character. She is beginning to like and to trust him…
… although there is still some way to go as we walk out of the theatre.
Barbara does not trust in people so easily. She knows the state too well. She is also too sophisticated for him - most prejudices have some basis in fact -; André lacking the glamour and wealth of his rival from the West. Although in a revealing scene it is clear that the commercialism of Western Europe is not what attracts Barbara to the other side of the Berlin Wall. She is bemused when a young woman, little more than a girl, shows her a retail catalogue from West Germany – she cannot share the woman’s excitement at its pictures of jewellery and clothes. Barbara wants to leave DDR for other reasons: to be with her lover, and, we guess, to speak and act freely; although these are only hinted at. One of the strengths of this film is its lack of polemical politics. Her ideas and her past are not explored, and are hardly mentioned. In this town it is not the lack of freedom of thought that oppresses Barbara but the busybodies of the state, whose only concern is to stop her leaving the country. There is no cosmic battle of ideas,ii only the mundane oppressions of an authoritarian regime; nicely caught when she warns off her lover from joining her in the DDR. It will be all right, he says, I will be a big propaganda coup for them. He doesn’t know as much as she. It is small town banality that kills the sophisticated soul.
André and Barbara are two people who stand outside conventional society, yet they exist on either side of its majoritarian culture. André is a low-level eccentric who finds it relatively easy to accommodate himself to the regime – he is not a natural rebel. He can thus live both inside and outside the mainstream society: he can do his job, accept the ideological platitudes, look after the egregious state police when they fall ill, and even file their character reports. He can do all of this and yet still remain his odd authentic self. For André is hardly touched by these public activities. In many ways he is like Barbara: he exists mostly within his own personality. But unlike her his individuality is innocuous, at least from an official perspective. Being an acceptable eccentric – most of his strangeness is invisible - the authorities do not touch him. Although the lesser of the two central characters he is a remarkable depiction of an insider/outsider in an authoritarian state; a person who can prosper and survive because his personality does not threaten the existing order.iii
Barbara is a natural outsider. She will not willingly conform to the platitudes and bureaucracy of the overly curious and intolerant state. Constantly she has to resist its pressures until it shapes her personality into its own image. Why? Because the state forces Barbara to become self-conscious in order to protect herself - she cannot risk showing affection, and so depend on people she cannot trust; and from whom she wants to escape. She thus puts herself under constant surveillance – she is a CCTV camera switched on 24/7. It makes her so hard! It is the regime’s fault. But: being so strong she can sacrifice her freedom for a girl who is a hopeless victim (another natural outsider, although with a much weaker character – she will always be at the mercy of officialdom). It is Barbara’s independent spirit that allows her to come back to the hospital, not her feelings for the doctor, or any sense of community responsibility. This is her freedom. And it resides in her strong and determined will, which gives her the strength to renounce her escape to West Germany. The very characteristic the locals criticised at the beginning, the very thing that makes her a “separate”, is what returns her to that chair, where she can look so enigmatically at us in the film’s final scene. A less remarkable woman, a more typical citizen of the DDR, would have taken the boat to Denmark.
Barbara has submitted to the community through an act of self-sacrifice. The irony is that she embodies the idealism that is at the core of the regime’s ideology. A reminder that we must seek the reality of a society not its ideas and symbols but in its daily activities; ordinary life mostly ignoring its ideological precepts – lip service is all that is required.iv The DDR is an occupied country. It is also a tired one; Barbara’s actions a marvellous exposure of the shabbiness of its existence; where ideals are merely camouflage for small-mindedness and petty careerism. In such a country to act out its ideals is to threaten its very existence; a bureaucratic state that has inculcated a culture of comfortable conformism for the majority cannot risk the danger of a fanaticism which takes its ideas seriously. Bureaucrats do not like martyrs; Jesus wasn’t welcome in the Temple… The sophisticated Berliner imprisoned within a provincial town the ideal metaphor for the oppression inherent in the dull banality of a communist state. Work, play and watch the TV - that is how to make an official happy.
Is submit the right word? “Accommodate” is a better one. Never, we believe, will she accept the legitimacy of the state’s bureaucrats, although she may live contentedly with a man she can love and respect. This is the possibility this film offers. But it is only a possibility. Even this may be expecting too much.
When the film starts an official tells André that Barbara is utterly alone; her circle of friends in Berlin completely destroyed through police repression. When the film ends she is close to one person. It is a small but important shift; Barbara not some ascetic saint who can live outside her environment. Amongst her meagre possessions are a Western handbag and Western cigarettes, while she dresses as smartly as her earnings allow; her blue eyeliner is particularly prominent. Barbara is susceptible to kindness and intelligence, and to the comforts of life, though she resists them if she doubts their purpose and provenance. She is rightfully wary of the local population; knowing that they could all be watching her – the hospital staff, the train passengers, her landlady; these are just a few of the people she suspects. When the film begins she cannot trust anyone; thus that first symbolic scene – alone on a crowded bus. When the film ends there is the possibility she can trust André. Sometimes one person is enough. This may lead to an acceptance of sorts – a retreat from society rather than a confrontation with it. This may the future that awaits her after the credits drop off the screen.
This is a quiet movie, where what is unsaid tells us more than what is said – thus we only discover Barbara plays the piano when she says it is out of tune. The film’s finale is therefore appropriate: it ends in silence, leaving us to guess at the scene’s meaning; which is suggestive but not conclusive – always there will be doubts in this relationship; little areas fenced off and patrolled by security guards...
Earlier André tells a story that is almost certainly a fiction. He said he was moved to the provinces because an assistant using a new incubator from New Zealand had mixed up Celsius with Fahrenheit causing the retinas of a baby to pop as the pressure inside increased. As her supervisor he was held responsible for this accident. Barbara asks him for the name of the machine. His reply? “Did I give too much detail, or was the narrative too rounded off; too precise…” The suggestion is that he made the story up to impress her; to convince her that he too is a victim of the regime. Now he believes she has found him out. Yet Barbara’s response suggests no such motive: “are you telling me the truth?” she asks. It was an innocent question. He doesn’t answer. Again we will never know for certain…
Motives are impenetrable, and no one can be sure what is fact and fiction; Barbara and André may become lovers, but we doubt they will become intimates.
In some ways they are very similar. But like all unusual characters they are too veiled by their own individuality to clearly see one another. It is what makes their relationship so difficult: both will tend to create the other out of their own assumptions. Little inventions… So fraught. So full of misunderstandings.
André Reiser and Barbara Wolff are complicated characters who live in a society based on lies and oppression, and where freedom of thought and action are liable to be heavily restrained. To live in a strange town and act “normally” is especially difficult, if not impossible, for a critic of the regime. What Barbara shows is just how difficult this is, and how strong one must be in order to resist the ordinary human pressures of love and friendship when they are offered to you. And she has to resist them, at least at first, because she cannot trust the sincerity of these locals; and anyway she has a vision of a better life on the other side of the Wall. This resistance is the source of her hardness: because she has to think all the time rather than reflexively react to external stimuli - she does not have the luxury of living unconsciously inside her senses. It is a hardness that André tries to soften and melt. At first he mostly fails. But now, after exercising her freedom, and choosing to return, Barbara might relax enough for them to be lovers.
Freedom in a police state is like an extra-marital affair. The couple fearful of exposure and abuse cannot talk about their lovers and so become self-consciously protective – they become hard and detached and silent. Barbara may eventually love André but it is unlikely she will ever completely confide in him – he is not hard enough to resist the pressures of the regime. And so that final silence. Some things simply cannot be said, only guessed at and quietly accepted.
The film was set in 1980. Nine years before the Wall came down. Is Barbara a metaphor for the DDR? Was it also softening, if only just a little? So that nine years later it wasn’t quite hard enough to resist the radicals - their resistance, and their hardness, too strong for the bureaucrats of the state to overcome.
We talk, and argue, and speculate, and we leave it to you the reader to think about…
And think about this too. We also live in country that worships the people; although it is the corporate bureaucrat who polices our lives, deciding what we should read and see; their decisions based on the tastes of the majority they influence. How long, do you think, it will take us to become like the DDR? A shabby culture were the intellectuals are poor and excluded, and dismissed as anti-social elements; too uppity for their own good. Think about that. And then think of Barbara, and the life you may one day lead.
(Review of Barbara)
[i] The film begins in the same abrupt way.
[iii] Until the award of the Nobel Prize Boris Pasternak was just such a character.
[iv] Ideology is a means to both inspire a population and control them - a tightly drawn system of moral rules can be easily policed. However, it cannot be taken too literally if the society is to survive: theological purity can only exist in the early revolutionary years when religious fervour created the regime. Gradually the culture reasserts itself, like grass growing up through an abandoned railway line.