Barbara is a doctor who's been shipped out to the country in East Germany. It's 1980, and while all she's apparently done is express her desire to emigrate, it's enough to earn her exile from the life she knows in Berlin, and enough to earn her surveillance in her unwanted new home. One of her surveillants calls her "sulky," but you'd be sulky too if the Stasi were up your behind every time you took a bike ride—which, when she comes home and there's a knock on the door, then the systematic search of her depressing apartment and the snapping-on of rubber gloves, is all too clearly the case.
Barbara, played with skillful understatement by Nina Hoss, is, in fact, having secret assignations (sexual and otherwise), hiding a bundle of money, and plotting her escape. Meanwhile, her patients need her—a pregnant teenager who has escaped from a forced work camp, a young man who has tried to commit suicide and lost or suppressed his ability to emote. (Both mirror Barbara's own state, but with appropriate subtlety.) Then she finds her stoniness beginning to crumble with a fellow doctor (Ronald Zehrfeld)—one who's charged with monitoring her, but who also shows her kindness and admiration. There's a frisson between them, and Barbara seems to be slowly—quite slowly, as this is a slow-paced film—developing a case of Stockholm syndrome. When her secret lover/coconspirator betrays his lack of respect for her work, and the timing of a surgery converges with her plan to flee, the weight of the choices she's making shifts all around her.
Critically acclaimed in Germany, Barbara is a quiet film, one that dwells in the tedium of repression, the low simmer of tension rather than the spy-movie-style moments of terrible dramatic action. It makes The Lives of Others look like Crank. But there's an intimacy here, and an ambiguity, that The Lives lacks.