SET IN EAST GERMANY in 1980, Barbara is a tense, deceptively quiet film about life in a small-town police state. Barbara (Nina Hoss) is a doctor recently exiled to a village in the northernmost corner of East Germany, far from her home in Berlin. It's not clear why she's been exiled, or why the secret police in her new hometown have taken such an interest in her, but it's soon evident that they're right to be interested: Barbara is secretly squirreling away money and formulating an escape plan, determined to join her lover in the West.
In the meantime, she picks up shifts at the local hospital, where a handsome, affable doctor, André (Ronald Zehrfeld) has developed a bit of a crush on her—he offers advice on how to fit in with the other doctors, and admires her quickness in diagnosing a patient the rest of the hospital's staff have misdiagnosed. But André is probably a Stasi informer, and Barbara's clear attraction to him is offset by her fears that he's yet another person who can't be trusted.
Dressed in white hospital scrubs or a prim brown sweater, Barbara's reserve is formidable as she desperately tries to avoid attracting even more attention from the already-suspicious authorities. There are only a few moments in the film where her self-control threatens to crack—like when a female Stasi agent snaps on rubber gloves for a cavity search.
In many ways, Barbara's life is a horror show (see: rubber gloves). She's constantly on her guard, afraid to trust anyone—not her neighbors, not her colleagues, not her patients. But her new home is a beautiful, bucolic place; she begins to care about several of her young patients, and André the maybe-Stasi-informer even invites her over for ratatouille. In allowing these contradictions to exist side by side, Barbara ends up an effective, intelligent study in tension, contrast, and self-preservation.