Talking with Nina Hoss on the Subtle Beauty of ‘Barbara’

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When one thinks of cinematic depictions of Germany in the 1980s, the mind usually imagines a world drained of color—the desolate grey coldness lingering through the air between the tortured souls that fill the streets à la Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. But with Christian Petzold’s latest Silver Bear-winning drama, Barbara, we see this antithesis of that bleakness: a film rich with the nature and color, void of symbols and the dark veil of oppression. However, the lush and vibrant physical atmosphere is juxtaposed by the psychology of the film’s titular character, who must restrain her emotions and build a wall around herself as a means of preservation. 

Taking place in the year 1980 in East Germany, Barbara tells the story of a brilliant young doctor Barbara Wolff, who has been transferred from a prestigious post in Berlin to a small pediatric hospital in the country after applying for an ausreiseantrag, or exit visa, from the GDR. Her new life in the East requires exhbiting a great deal of strength—constantly having to ward off emotional connection to those around her, as well as advances of friendship and attraction from a fellow doctor, Andre (played wondefully by Roland Zehrfeld). But it’s in her work as a physician that we see the other side of Barbara, the dedication and passion that binds her to her patients, and makes us question whether or not she could abandon this new world to escape out of the East. This year’s Best Foreign Film Academy Award entry for Germany, the film’s quiet subtly and sense of disillusionment leave you wondering just how far the past seeps into the present and if it’s ever truly possible to leave one life behind.

We sat down with Nina Hoss to talk about her working relationship with Christian, building the past of Barbara, and experiencing the world of East Germany.

You’ve worked with Christian before. How did this film come about for the two of you?
Actually it’s a long time ago, like ten years ago, when we worked on our first movie that was made for television. He gave me a novel called Barbara, which is the basis of this movie. It’s also about a doctor but she lives in the second World War and she’s a communist—that’s what makes her an outcast in that sense. I read it in those days and forgot about it other than it was a great novel. But he worked on it in his mind and he started talking about it three or four years ago and then by having the idea of setting it in this time, I always thought that as a fascinating thing to do. So I was always been involved in the process of the story.

So he knew you were going to play Barbara?
Yeah, he said that pretty early on. The way we work is that he writes—or even before he starts writing, he tells me the story and we take these long walks and I ask questions: but what if she did this or what if he felt that? And then throughout these questions I think he gets more and more clear. That’s as much as I do.

That’s really interesting because there are a lot of directors who have an actor they love to work with, but it’s interesting to see how collaborative it is between the two of you.
Yeah, I pretty much see it as a partnership. I’m not involved in the writing process but I approach it from the acting standpoint and the emotional standpoint—not just my character but the whole. So I research it on that level—if I can emotionally follow each character, that it makes sense the way they react or act. We talk a lot about acting and filmmaking itself, so that’s why I think we’re so curious and both know we want to go on further. By finding someone who is now a real friend but also someone you can be open and frank about things with and you trust each other very much, you can criticize each other without thinking, oh this person wants to harm me or. It’s just always for the better and that’s such a great gift.

And does having that level of trust enhance your performance?
You have to have trust, especially if you play these parts. As an actress, if I didn’t have the stage and I just did Christian’s movies I think I would go die like a little flower because as an actress you want to express yourself, of course. But here you have to concentrate and hold back so much and do it all internally—which I love, I love that kind of work—but you have to trust that the other person really gets you in your work because someone might oversee what you’re actually doing and focus on something else. You have to be very much together so that I’m free in not doing anything.

Barbara had such a complexity but was so restrained, so your performance had to be restrained as well. How do you approach a role like that where everything is happening so internally?
In this, I definitely had to have a background story. I asked myself, who was she before she got into a conflict with the state? So I thought: well, she must have gone along with the whole system for quite a bit because other than that you wouldn’t have become a doctor, you weren’t even allowed to study medicine. So I then I thought: but during that period of time when she was a student in Berlin, which even back then was very exciting city, she was a lively positive woman. I mean, in the film now she has make up on, so she did back then as well, and she had that positive side about her but she had a guilt, For me in my head, it was that she didn’t stand up for a very good friend when she had to in school days and that always stayed with her. And when there came another situation where she had the option to not look at it or look at it,  and she did. So she’s fine with that but it made her feel like, I can’ stay here, I have to leave this country because it always pushes me to this moment and I have to do too many compromises to actually stay here. So that’s when we meet her, she’s being punished for that attitude and she keeps up that attitude because she knows she has the option to flee. That gives you strength because you have an option. But that’s why she can’t show the world, I don’t like you I want nothing to do with you and I’m leaving you. So she’s closed up for anything that’s around her. But only in her work she can manage.

She had to be so turned off to most things around her—Andre would be so warm and welcoming to her and she’d be so cold. But then you’d see her with a patient and she was so loving and protective.
That’s when she can’t keep up that wall and that’s why he can get to her.

And Andre can see that side to her. Their relationship was so great to watch as the dynamic between then changed—how was working with Ronald?
Oh, I love him, I really do. It’s always such a present that’s been given to you when you rehearse up to a certain point, and then when they call “action” I could rely on the fact that whatever happens he can go along with it and the subtly. I just loved that about it. And I also thought, it’s so great to have him who is such a warm person but portraying someone where you can’t be sure if you can trust him. But he gives the whole movie this warm and the whole movie, this warmth comes closer to this iceberg and slowly melts her so I thought it was perfect.

He added to that juxtaposition between this world and that she is fleeing to. When she has these secret meetings with Jorg, everything seems so much colder and they’re always in hotels. When he’s talking about the future if she runs away and says, "you won’t have to work," the second I heard that, I thought, how could she leave something she loves so much? So there’s the East that feels much more warm and she gets to be this intelligent working woman, but there’s another world that might be better.
Yeah, and Jorg doesn’t even know her. That’s the moment where she finds out, oh god he doesn’t have a clue what I’m about; I’m about my job, that’s me.

He doesn’t challenge her like Andre.
I’m sure she wouldn’t have the same conversations. It’s like a holiday romance because it’s always exciting because it’s in secret and you know, all of a sudden when it comes to this decision to leave everything behind and not be able to ever come back, I think in that moment you think, hang on what’s going on on this other side? Women don’t work and I mean it was the difference. In East Germany in the 80s, there was no question that women worked, it was no question because it was no option because otherwise they wouldn’t have enough workmanship; they had to have the women working or else it would have collapsed much earlier. So that was also their self-esteem, being a working person. And so that was not an option at all for her. I thought that was always the turning moment when he says that.

The film was mainly shot chronologically; did that help create an atmosphere or a tone because you were building up to something rather than have to remember the narrative arc in your mind?
It definitely helped. The only thing we shot not chronologically was the kiss, which Christian insisted on because he said, if you act towards that kiss you make the moment too big. And I thought, yeah maybe but also we’re intelligent actors so I’m not sure if we really needed it to be early on. 

And it’s not a lustful kiss.
No, she always so restrain herself because she’s leaving that night. It comes from also knowing that she’s leaving, I have to give into that just for a second.

It was filmed so beautifully and much different than other films that depict the time; was that something Christian as very conscious of doing?
It mainly had to do with Chrsitian’s remembrance. Because as a child, his family came from the East, and I think they fled before the wall was built, and so when they got back each summer on holiday to see their family, that was his rememberance. The grass was green, it smelled great, and it still is a difference if you’re in the West in rural areas, it’s all worked on. You see humans working. But in the East it’s very wild because they just had their farms and it was a huge collective thing, but other than that they left nature alone. So it is beautiful. It’s much different, and he wanted to portray that. Also, that the colors are vibrant and beautiful also.

It’s a place where Barbara can be more alive. 
It shows also what you leave behind. It’s much harder to leave that behind than a gray, grim, cold place. And that’s also a reality but not only.

And did you speak to other cast members who had experienced living in the East at this time?
There was an actress in the film that had fled East Germany. It was really great to have her there because I was so interested in this moment—which was quite tricky to play—when Barbara lies to Andre. He wants her to be part of the operation and he says, “don’t you want to be part of it,” and she says, “yeah” and tells him she can make it and you know, I’m not there anymore. So I have to act like the audiences gets this is hard for her, but it must be convincing that she doesn’t see that. So what’s going on inside of you, I wanted to understand that and this actress, she explained it to me. She was with a theater in the West and she was pretending to go back with them and she fled through the woods, through the window like a movie as well. She made appointments at home—we meet then and then and then and then next Saturday we have lunch, or whatever—meanwhile she was saying that, she said it was hot and cold and hot and cold, and it was so hard to do that because you know you’ll never see them again. So that was amazing to talk to someone who actually went through that.

In terms of female characters, I liked Barbara because she did lie, make bad decisions, and did things she shouldn’t have done, but you don’t judge her, you look at her from a very human standpoint because she’s not in a position she wants to be in. So did you think about that when you were going into it, about how to make this woman that people would understand?
For me it as very important, that in her job, I wanted to portray a doctor and I was actually watching doctors in hospital. What makes a good doctor? It’s someone that has the right amount of warmth but also is confident in what they know and that they are not afraid of saying things you might not want to hear. So I wanted her to say to the girl, it’s going to hurt and you know, prepare them but be there for them and go through with it, no question.  And that’s when you feel safe as a patient. So I wanted her to be the amazing doctor that you want to have, that you want to go to. And from that point on, it revealed to me how I wanted to portray Barbara because if you can be that kind of doctor, you must be a good person. 

Did you do a lot of research?
I talked a lot with people who had lived in this period, and read a lot of books to create a background story, to get ideas and to get this atmosphere. Because living in the West, I just never experienced anything like it—not trusting anyone, that you can’t talk freely.