In 'Barbara,' A New Look At Life Behind The Wall Already an awards-season staple, German historical dramas are moving beyond the horrors of the Third Reich and delving into the nuanced past of the former East Germany. Films like Christian Petzold's Barbara, a quiet story about a troubled young doctor, tell a different kind of history.
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In 'Barbara,' A New Look At Life Behind The Wall

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In 'Barbara,' A New Look At Life Behind The Wall

In 'Barbara,' A New Look At Life Behind The Wall

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

The movie award season is upon us and historical dramas are once again front and center. One of the films now in theaters comes from Germany, a country with a long tortured history that's inspired many movies. The new film is called "Barbara." And as NPR's Bilal Qureshi reports, it explores questions that a lot of German filmmakers are asking today.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: World War II epics and Holocaust memoirs have become standard fare in the award season. But today's generation of German directors is working through the more recent history of East and West. For director Christian Petzold, it's also a personal history.

CHRISTIAN PETZOLD: My parents, they're refugees, from the German Democratic Republic, my first two years in the West, I'm living in a camp for displaced person.

QURESHI: Petzold says he still remembers going to visit his family while the country was divided.

PETZOLD: They're talking the same language than me, the cousins and all the people around me, I can talk to them, but they are totally different at the same moment. And for me, it was a very mysterious time. And so I start o remember this time when I start to make this movie.

QURESHI: The star of Petzold's movie is Nina Hoss. She was born in the West and was 14 when the wall came down in 1989.

NINA HOSS: When my parents said, why don't we go and have a look at this country, I always said, no, no, no. Why, why? Maybe they won't let me out again or - so I had this horror vision of the other part of Germany in my mind. But that, of course, changed. Once the wall came down, I went to East Berlin to study acting and in East Berlin school and I wanted to live in the east part of Berlin.

QURESHI: The new film "Barbara" is about a woman who wants to get out of East Germany. And for that, she's punished. She's a talented doctor who's banished to work in a rural village under constant surveillance. She's angry and on edge. This is different from the menacing oppression of the Stasi shown in the Oscar-winning "The Lives of Others."

The handlers and watchers in "Barbara" are equally vulnerable, human. And Nina Hoss says it was important to show both the ambiguity and the ordinariness of life in the former German Democratic Republic.

HOSS: If you talk to the people who lived in the GDR, they always tell you, we loved, we had kids, the grass was green, I had a wonderful childhood. So I thought it was very important for "Barbara" also to be able to show that it's hard to leave your home behind, however cruel the system is you live in.

QURESHI: However cruel, director Christian Petzold points out there were also accomplishments like those of the Agfa film company.

PETZOLD: Technicolor techniques, they were invented in the part of East Germany near Beterfeld and the German Democratic Republic has pictures of itself always very, very colorful. It's like a Jerry Lewis movie in the '50s, very fantastic red, fantastic blue. But we in the West, we make pictures of them like our imagination of socialism - gray, dirty light.

QURESHI: "Barbara" is trying to address the stereotype without glossing over the reality of that period. It's one of a series of new German films that have taken up the ghosts of a once divided country. Laurence Kardish is the former film curator at the Museum of Modern Art. He presented an annual survey of German cinema at MoMA and he says the country's filmmakers can't escape their past.

LAURENCE KARDISH: There are so many issues. It is such a turbulent history that contemporary filmmakers have to and do often refer to the events of the past hundred years, 150 years.

QURESHI: "Barbara" premiered at the Berlin Film Festival last year and both Nina Hoss and Christian Petzold live in the new German capital. It's a city that symbolizes German division and reunification. And Nina Hoss says for the artists who've made their homes there, the time to tell stories like "Barbara" is now.

HOSS: If we would have done this movie 10 years ago, it would've been very difficult to get the acceptance from the Eastern part because it was sure that if you come from the West, you can't tell our story because you didn't know anything about it. And I think Westerners also didn't even try to do it. Now, I think, by having a distance, the distance is actually quite helpful.

QURESHI: "Barbara" was filmed on location in a small town and hospital in the former East. Nina Hoss says she spoke at length with the locals and says they were grateful that Westerners came and tried to get it right.

HOSS: They were and they are still very happy that they live in a democracy now. But the way it went and that no one actually asked questions of how they lived, the West kind of got there and said, well, now you can be happy. You must be happy now. And what happened and what you went through or how beautiful it was, also, I mean, it's 40 years of their life. They can't be in vain, you know. And no one asked and that was very hurtful, I think.

QURESHI: And by getting beyond the gray stereotypes, "Barbara" is emblematic of a new generation of German films and how they're asking about their country's past to better understand its future. Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.

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