Quietly over the last 11 years, one of the strongest collaborations in contemporary cinema has been developing between the German director Christian Petzold and the actress he often chooses to star in his films, Nina Hoss. Beginning with the 2001 German TV-movie Something To Remind Me, Hoss has appeared in five Petzold films. Yella (2007) was followed by the next year's Jerichow, loosely inspired by James M. Cain's novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, it's the best version of that oft-filmed (usually badly) book. These are subtle films, inverted thrillers in which the tension stays beneath the surface. It doesn't overwhelm you like a tidal wave, it sucks you down like an undertow.
Petzold and Hoss's latest collaboration, Barbara, is their richest and finest film. Set in rural East Germany in 1980, the film tells the story of a doctor (Hoss) who has been exiled to the provinces after being jailed for an unnamed crime. At the hospital where she works she encounters the doctor charged with keeping an eye on her, and a teenage girl on sick leave from a socialist work camp. On the outside she makes surreptitious plans to join her lover in the West. Hoss plays the title character as a woman determined not to give anything of herself away to a state that has already taken so much. And yet, still and nearly silent in scene after scene, she essays the tension of living in the modern totalitarian state, how being watched turns a person into a watcher of themselves, determined to keep a placid surface no matter the roiling emotion inside.
I talked to Hoss in New York during her Stateside press swing to promote Barbara.
What do you think accounts for the richness of the collaboration with Christian Petzold? I think it's that we seem to have the same interest in what kind of topic he deals with, what he's interested in. I always have the feeling that he sees something in me personally which I am not but I can relate to very well. It's always about a human being who is outside of a social community, or the society even, and tries to make her way back in. So you watch that process and the loneliness in that process, the hope. And now with Barbara, I have the feeling we went a step further, that you actually can talk about real love, and it's more emotional, I have the feeling, than the ones before. Not so scrutinized, you know? The view on things is a bit more generous or kind on life. I just have the feeling we are on a great journey together — it's such an amazing luck to find someone that you know you are always on to something, when you get together and you work on things.
You're talking about scrutinization and this is mostly a silent performance. Yeah, Barbara, you mean.
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