Cold War tale not walled in by the usual conventions
Any Cold War drama set in East Germany during the Eighties is bound to invite comparisons with Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's brilliant Oscar winner The Lives of Others.
Christian Petzold neatly defies expectations with an idyllic countryside setting in contrast to the usual grim and grey communist-era urban misery. He also dials down the thriller elements of his story to concentrate on more subtle human interactions, giving a peach of a lead role to his muse Nina Hoss.
That said, anyone who craves scenes of intimidation, oppression and intrusive surveillance – with hatchet-faced Stasi women pulling on rubber gloves to conduct humiliating full cavity searches – will be delighted to find that Petzold does not disappoint in this department.
When East Berlin doctor Barbara (Hoss) arrives at a country hospital, she appears sullen and distant and is treated with disdain by her new colleagues. It quickly becomes clear that her demotion is punishment for making an application to leave the country.
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Billeted in a grotty apartment, which is searched regularly by the Stasi, she manages to cycle off for a bit of light smuggling and the occasional woodland tryst with her West German lover. At the hospital, outwardly kindly and sympathetic medic Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) attempts to befriend her, but she is naturally suspicious of his real motives. Her plan to flee is complicated by her commitment to two young patients: a suicidal boy and a pregnant girl with meningitis.
There are few dramatic fireworks on display here as Petzold only toys with the conventions of the espionage thriller, initially to misdirect us. Nina Hoss gives a finely nuanced performance as the conflicted yet resourceful Barbara, who has learned to trust nobody and flinches visibly each time a car slows down outside her window.
Equally impressive is Ronald Zehrfeld as the unreadable Andre, whose true allegiance remains opaque throughout. Rainer Bock, who's equally at home in Hollywood (War Horse, Unknown) and Euro arthouse fare (The White Ribbon), is suitably chilling as Barbara's sinister chief tormentor.