It's nearly a half-hour into the gripping "Barbara" -- Germany's official entry for the Oscar in foreign-language films -- before anyone cracks even a hint of a smile. No wonder: it's East Germany in 1980, and life is grim and gritty.
No one knows this better than Barbara (the luminous Nina Hoss), an East Berlin medical doctor sent to a hospital in an isolated small town as punishment for trying to leave the country. Yet the outwardly cold and unflappable Barbara is not easily cowed. Despite being constantly watched and harassed, she continues her plot to flee and join her boyfriend in West Germany.
But then life gets in the way in writer-director Christian Petzold's film, which won the Berlin Film Festival's Silver Bear award.
Barbara finds herself falling for a colleague, Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) and starting to really care for the patients who need her. Ultimately, she has to ask herself the question that The Clash sang about years ago: Should I stay or should I go?
The plotting, the planning and the deepening relationships don't make for kinetic action, but they are the foundation for a smart, engrossing film where a glance, a word, and often what's unsaid prove just as effective a way to build suspense and drama.
* * *
Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and adult themes)
Cast: Nina Hoss and
Director: Christian Petzold
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. In German with subtitles