Barbara is one of the finest suspense thrillers of the year, and most of its tension is expressed in the impassive face of actress Nina Hoss who plays the title character. A doctor at a rural hospital in East Germany planning an escape while under the vigilant eye of the Stasi, Barbara now lives a life characterized by watchfulness and fear, and she hides her inner turmoil behind a mask of affected indifference. Hoss’s layered performance shows the effort involved in maintaining this façade, and the terrifying freedom of revealing one's feelings. FILM COMMENT spoke with Hoss in New York about how she prepared for the role, the backstory she invented, and how those who had lived in the GDR reacted to the film.
One of the most striking things about the movie is the extent of detail, from your performance down to the set design and sound effects. Could you talk about the research you did to get into the role?
It was a role where I knew there would be no possibility of talking much, to explain her. I would have to do a different kind of work, to make it interesting, her being silent, but always being present. I had to create a backstory. It was very crucial for this part, that I knew why she tries to hide her true self. I thought she was [originally] a very lively, positive person. I had a backstory as to why she got in trouble with the state. She was forced to build up this defensive wall: “You can’t get to me, you won’t hurt me, not on the outside and not on the inside. I am not vulnerable.” But that is not the truth. Someone cannot [truly] be like that, but you can work on it. I wanted to show her work on that—train [herself] to be strong, although she might not be. Like when she’s at home and it gets to her when this woman [from the Stasi] is constantly there with her rubber gloves. But you can’t really show it with this guy [the Stasi interrogator] sitting there. You can only give a hint of what this woman is going through: “He’s looking at me, and I won’t give him the victory of showing weakness.” And that is exhausting. It must have been exhausting for people like Barbara.
I researched a lot by reading books about that time—Christa Wolf and Stefan Heym, all these authors from the GDR—in order to get to know this atmosphere and how people coped with it. I never experienced it, because I’m from the West. I talked with people a lot. What was it like, this feeling that you can’t talk freely? You had to go into the forest to talk, because sometimes it was your husband who spied on you. The subtleness of that threat was even more horrible than the obvious one, where you’re already in the grip of the state, interrogations and prisons. That is another horror. But what infected the society was everywhere, and you didn’t see it. And that’s what they all described. As well as all the beauty, and that’s what we wanted to portray, the area in all its vibrant colors. Not gray. It must be hard to leave that country. It’s hard for Barbara to make this decision. Every home, as horrible as it can be, still has something. It makes you, and you’re attached to it, and it’s hard to leave.
What was the backstory you created for Barbara?
She must have gone along with the system for quite a while, because otherwise you wouldn’t be allowed to study medicine. She must have gone through all these institutions, all those youth groups doing parades and so on. You have to be part of that. There must have been a point, and I thought in school, where she met a very good friend who was a Protestant pastor. This friend had a tough time in the GDR, because you weren’t meant to pursue your religion under Communism. So this girl, this friend of hers, got in trouble in the classroom, and Barbara didn’t stand up for her. She pretended not to be her friend. Which is something you can understand, as Barbara could get in trouble as well. But being the person that she is, she felt guilty through the years of her studies. It stuck with her. A deep wound, I thought.
Then at work, again something happened, where she could either keep quiet, or actually say something. And she speaks. The guilt, that wound is healed, although under a very thin layer of skin. So that’s not what she is dealing with anymore. Now she’s dealing with being in conflict with the state. Saying something against it, she really felt what they are like, in the claw of that system. We thought she was in prison, as well, and that happened by just saying you wanted to leave. They would put you in prison for a few days to intimidate you. And then having this punishment of not being allowed to work in the Charité, the biggest hospital in Berlin. It’s clear she needs to leave, she can’t make any compromises anymore. She closes down, and doesn’t want anything to do with this country anymore.
But through her job [at the rural hospital], the only moment where she can’t keep that wall up is when she meets the patient, Stella. And this is where she meets André [the head doctor, played by Ronald Zehrfeld]. He always gets to her in moments when she’s actually feeling something. She teases him, trying to find out if he is a spy. “Who is this guy? Why is he interested in me? He should leave me alone.” And he can withstand this. He always finds the right thing to say. No matter what she says, he has an answer.
I understand that the director Christian Petzold screens a lot of movies before production begins. What titles did you watch and did any influence your performance?
He always does that, and I love it. We talk so much about filmmaking, and the perspective used. The standpoint of the camera tells a lot. Christian and Hans Fromm [the DP], thought that because the film is about the state observing the people, the camera should not be at an observing angle. The camera should be a friend of Barbara. When she’s on her own in the bathroom, I never have the feeling that the way we look at her is threatening. The audience is never in the voyeuristic position. That was very important for me to know. We talk about that by watching movies. We watched The French Connection, for example, where you never see the shooter. It’s about perspective. That tells a story in itself. Then we watched Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not: that is about a flirtation that is going on. [Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall] are quite harsh to each other, and very clever. And because they can handle each other, they are attracted to each other. The other person won’t crumble. We watched that also just to watch a great movie [laughs].
I read that you watched Rossellini’s Stromboli as well.
Yes, we also watched it for Yella . It’s about being foreign, her being on that island. There’s always a struggle. I always have the feeling that the characters Christian creates are similar in that sense. Either they were thrown out of society, or something happened like in Wolfsburg  where a kid died and you’re thrown out of it. It’s always about, in a sense, how to get back in, to find their position. And how much do you have to give up of yourself to be a part of something? And don’t you need to be part of something to be a fulfilled person?
Were you able to watch Barbara with people who lived through that period?
Yes, it was exciting and quite nerve-wracking, especially for Christian and me, coming from the West. The three of us—Ronald, Christian and me—did a cinema tour throughout Germany. Leipzig was the first city in the East, and we were nervous. I didn’t know if they would tear us apart. It turned out to be the opposite, which made me really happy. I had this one incident, a woman came up to me afterward and said, “Thank you so much, for the first time I really felt this atmosphere again, it reminded me of my childhood, and that happiness. I felt happy. It was so green, and people had time, and God, people were sitting smoking in the hospital!” A minute later, a guy comes up to me and says, “Thank you so much for the movie because it just shows the way it was, and it was shit.” Whatever your experience was with that state, that’s what you’ll find. And I was really happy about that. Because it means we treated it with a lot of respect.