"I Don't Think Film Can Give Answers": Nina Hoss Talks BARBARA

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
In Barbara, her fifth collaboration with director Christian Petzold, Nina Hoss stars as a doctor in East Germany circa 1980, who, after several repeated attempts to escape to the west, is banished to a rural pediatric hospital. Her continued plans of escape come into doubt when she befriends the hospital's handsome head surgeon, André (played by Ronald Zehrfeld) and Stella (Jansa Fritzi Baur), a troubled patient from a hard labor camp. 

In a career full of beguiling performances, Hoss' turn as Barbara is nothing short of astounding. Quiet and steadfast in her resolve, in many ways Barbara recalls a classic movie heroine. Hoss further extends to Barbara a humane beauty that is ever so nuanced and mesmerizing to watch. If Barbara offers us anything it reminds us that that the German Democratic Republic was a real place with real people; a complicated place, not just made up of the black & white stereotypes we've come to know through much of recent cinema.

As a great admirer of Petzold and many of his peers in the so-called Berlin School of filmmaking (often meditative works on post-wall Germany with echoes of genre, these are politically and socially minded films absent of rhetoric. See:
Christoph Hochhäusler's I Am Guilty and Angela Schanelec's Marseille) it was an absolute pleasure to sit down with Ms. Hoss, an integral player in some of these fascinating pictures. 

Please note that we do discuss the ending of the film. Though it is spoken of in a rather oblique fashion, you may want to skip that bit if you have not yet seen Barbara. For your convenience I have marked that section with spoiler tags.
 

Twitch: This might be an out of left field kind of topic to start with, but I wanted to talk about it a bit. I've been having a lot of conversations with folks about process and purpose.

Nina Hoss: Oh my god, okay.

The process of what we do creatively, everyday, versus how we see purpose; the purpose of our lives, of our passions, of what we're here to do. So I thought you'd be a great person to continue that conversation with. [We both laugh] So, what is your purpose as an actor, as a storyteller?

Well, I try to not think about it so much, to not put too much pressure on myself, because what I don't like is if art tries to find the answers to the big questions of life. I prefer to ask questions and maybe stress out the point that life is tricky and difficult. We all deal with difficult phases in our lives or decisions, but I am a positive person so I think there is always hope in everything. And that is maybe something I continue to talk about, you know, especially with Christian, because he...

That fits right into all the movies you've done together.

Barbara_Petzold_Hoss.jpgYes! That's it. Because he either writes characters that are kind of... either they're thrown out of society or something happened to them and they try to find their way back in, and throughout that process you raise questions, you might give answers you can relate to, but maybe then it's... I like the complexity and the complications. But the purpose of being an actor... it is maybe telling about life, and maybe to have a frank outlook on life, and to explore it and to research it. But I am not looking for the answer because I don't think film can give answers, but it can raise questions and make you aware of certain things, and maybe evoke a discussion.

So taking that notion and particularly working with Christian, how does that come over to BARBARA -- BARBARA as a story, but also Barbara as a person. I mean where did this person come from?

There is a novel called Barbara. Christian presented it to me. It's a similar story, but it's not at all what the movie is. It was set during the second world war, where I think she was a journalist, but also a doctor, and she was a communist. So that's the element that made her not apart of the German society at that time. Christian set it in the 80s of the GDR, so that's the main difference. So how it came up... he read it, he gave it to me. But that was ten years ago. I had already forgotten about it. I just loved the novel but he still had  the idea of how you can incorporate that story into the GDR, and so finally he wrote the script.

So that came up finally, and with several projects you did together in between. Now your first collaboration with Christian was TOTER MANN [translated as DEAD MAN aka SOMETHING TO REMIND ME], correct?

Yeah, that's the first movie.    

That one to me, is probably still my favorite. I mean that's a television film, and watching it over here we don't think of it in that way, but that one... if I can touch base on your performance there as Leyla, and again, there's the whole transitory, strange, even dispossessed nature with a lot of the characters you play in Christian's films, and even in other non Berlin School films, like ANONYMA: A WOMAN IN BERLIN, and in THE WHITE MASAI ... like you said, characters who are outcasts or who are new in town. Leyla in TOTER MANN feels like, as a viewer, you have to peel back many, many layers over the entire movie to really know who she is, and it's a very involved, exciting and intriguing process. And that's not the exact same thing in BARBARA, but there are these similar mirrors or reflections that you play with across all your roles with Christian, as well as in those other films.

Barbara_300px_still_2.jpgYeah, especially with Christian, and also with Anonyma. Not so much with The White Masai I think, but it's about women... that to make it through the situations they're in they have to build up this kind of wall, you know, I mean especially with Barbara, but also Leyla in Toter Mann. She has a plan. She's the one who acts. She has the whole story in her hands. She gets a bit confused with the man. That's not what she wanted to happen, but it's her plan. It's her master plan till the end. And the others are more reactive. Barbara is acting at the very beginning where we don't see her, and then we watch her reacting: "but how can I make it through living in this state that tries to oppress me? I won't let that happen." But she can't make free decisions in the sense of... I mean she can make free decisions...

But those large decisions, those life-changing decisions...

...Yeah...

She certainly starts to react, and maybe even let that wall down a bit, eventually with André, and in particular with Stella. Correct me if I am wrong but this is the first role for you where's there's an obvious maternal element, that motherly instinct that comes across with Stella...

Yeah, very true...


[BEGIN ENDING SPOILERS]

...Once that part of the story unfolded, [Barbara's decision to help Stella] I felt, "oh, well we know exactly where this is going." Which is very different from the other movies that you've done with Christian, I mean I've never been sure of where they're gonna go. But this is gonna happen.


Not everyone says that. That's a possibility, but you'r not quite sure she's gonna go for it.

And that's the thing. When my colleague, Dustin [Chang] interviewed Christian at the New York Film Festival (Dustin's excellent interview and review are linked below), he said that this was the first time that he did not know how to end a movie. How did he brings this up to you?

We discussed it. I didn't interfere, because I think that is really the director's decision, because it concludes the whole thing, so he needs to know what he wants to tell, without anyone interfering there, but I think when he said that, he meant that it was not so much about her decision, that she's staying... there were two lines written for the last scene,  where she comes back and sits down with André and the boy. She's saying "so how did it go? Is he okay?" So by talking about that patient... the son that he could be standing in for... that through that it continues the game that they've been playing. That they say something, but they mean something else, underneath. And we thought while we were there shooting the scene: "You can't talk." There is nothing to say. It's all clear and we just look at each other. I mean maybe more for the German audience, because we know about the whole story and stuff... you don't necessarily think that that's a happy ending. You know, she was gone, the Stasi was on her tail. She might go to prison.

That moment between she and André might be nice.

That moment might be nice because she's not alone anymore, she has a partner. That makes you a bit stronger. She has an option all of a sudden, but it might not go down well in this country. So it's a semi-happy ending. [laughs]

[END SPOILERS]


Well it's life, just apart of asking more questions.

Yeah, and also life in an oppressive state, that won't let you do what you want to do.

And yet, the way you all are presenting this story is not sensational. Some of the movies that come over to America that focus on this period basically say "this is bad, this is bad, this is bad".

Yeah, we have a good and bad.

Barbara_300px_still_1.jpgAnd this is a beautiful place where Barbara is living. Certainly you can look at that and say "what a lovely countryside." There are clearly good human beings there, the majority of people seem to be fine in their day to day lives, and then there are those shadows that Barbara knows all too well. There were two moments in the film that really struck me. There's the scene at André's house where he's making ratatouille, and there's Barbara looking at all his books, his collection of doctor's stories, and he's so pleased that she's looking at them. Even though there might have been other moments where there's a smirk or a smile from Barbara, it's here that she really smiles, I mean we see teeth, and that's so striking because there's a certain level of humanity to that, she's now opened up for this one brief moment, she kinda laughs at him, she almost snorts...

Yeah! [laughs]

So here's this person, she's revealed herself ever so briefly. And then the complete opposite of that in a way, although there's still very much her boldness in it, is when the piano is fixed and she's playing the Chopin piece -- Nocturne I believe -- while the Stasi are sitting outside in their car. Was that something Christian had just written in the script or was this something you discussed?

He knew that I played the piano. He knew that Barbara should play the piano, but he wasn't quite sure which piece -- If it should be Beethoven or something more dramatic, or Schumann or romantic or whatever, so we ended up with Chopin. [laughing] And that's also because I was able to play it! For me this made perfect sense, that this is something that belongs to her, but on the other hand you have to be open to play music, so you have to... that's why I thought she probably hadn't played for a long time. She didn't want to go there. But now that she knows this car's outside, she's gonna play.

It really acted like a weapon, as in: "I'm here and I know you're here. And I am strong."

And of course, it had a little bit to do with The Deer Hunter, also.

Right, I've heard Christian mention that subtle parallel -- that THE DEER HUNTER took place at the same time as BARBARA. Where did you all shoot the film? BARBARA isn't made up of that urban or industrial look or setting that a lot of Christian's movies occupy.

Yeah, very true. Well, it was a very tiny village called Kirchmöser, which even in German ears sounds very funny, it's like "What? Where?" It's an hour away from Berlin, in Brandenburg, the outskirts of Berlin, and it really is tiny, there is no industry in this village, it's close to the water, a very beautiful place. I remember, Ronald [Zehrfeld] and I were living in this holiday house. Very simple, but overlooking the water, and you saw the geese coming in and flying past. So it was really calming and rural. So we found all these spots there: Andre's house and Barbara's apartment. This village looked exactly like it does in the movie... well, except we put different cars there, but that was it! So it's still existing as it was. If you drive to the east, the cities look more fabulous than the west now because so much money has gone into them, but the countryside is pretty much that you have the feeling that you're driving through the GDR.

So there you are over thirty years ago. How did people in the town find you all, coming in and making the film?

They loved it. They were excited. Also in this town, Kirchmöser, we found this hospital -- there really was this hospital, and they're not allowed to tear it down or do anything with it 'cause it's under protection, so we were allowed to use it -- this one story we could use. And so nurses came by who were nurses back then. They went upstairs, and I remember, they burst into tears, because it looked just like... you feel what they're missing. And that's what they're [the local nurses] talking about, always with this nostalgia, of course, that they always have the feeling that they're so together, that they had time in those days in the hospital. It was not about getting the patient through -- operating on them, okay and now go home, please the next one. They had time. They could sit and smoke.

There is tension there in the film, of course, but you get that calm, collected sense watching it too.

Barbara_300px_still_3.jpgYeah, it's a different approach. It's not about production. And that's the difference, even as a western person, you can feel "ahh there's something about it..." There's something I like about it. And that's what I like about the movie. It's not so easy to say "ah, well it's all rubbish and I am glad that it is gone."

That's why I am not so surprised to see Christian do a film in this era, because so many of his films are about structures or systems, about how to find your place amongst them or feel freed from them. In this context, going back to this era and looking at a story like this didn't feel strange to me.

It didn't feel strange to me either. Now we [Germans] hadn't talked about it much, other than in films like The Lives Of Others, a thriller where you know how to position yourself -- it's very clear what's good and bad -- or from a very comical point of view like in Goodbye Lenin! Now I think it's time to have a closer look on what happened, what went on in those days.

Well BARBARA certainly provides that opportunity, especially to Westerners, and to Americans...

Yeah, to learn about it.

Absolutely. And to me this feels like the biggest project thus far, for both of you, that's being pushed in America, which is pretty exciting to me since I've been watching a lot of new German films from the Berlin School.

I just worked with Thomas Arslan actually.

That's fantastic. I just saw IN SHADOWS.

Oh, you did? Yeah, we did a movie over the summer in Canada. I learned how to ride a horse! [The film in question is a western entitled Gold]

So that should make it to the festival circuit sometime next year.

We all hope so.

So thinking about that, I'll close on this. How would you describe German cinema today to an international audience?

[laughing] Oh, I don't know...

I've been trying to wrap my brain around it, because I just want people to see these films from Christian, from his contemporaries, from many of the people you work with.

Yeah, well, there is no such thing as German Cinema, I think. I would talk more about  these certain people who try and create something special, and have a special look on the country, but also raise questions.

That's very much the same in the states. There's not a national cinema anymore, if there ever was one. Perhaps it was just a notion. Now you tell these little stories, you have these little movies.

Yeah, I think that's the case. It's so interesting because this is the first year that I am a part of the European Film Academy, so this year I had the opportunity to watch all these films that might never make it to the German market. And I watched them and I thought "Wow!" I mean they have such a power and such a... maybe because we're all in a crisis. I don't know. And they're complicated! So I don't know if we shouldn't talk about European movies, about certain characters, and tell these stories, that are actually kind of similar in the kinds of questions they raise.

I certainly think that's been the case. I mean for me personally there's something about diving in and accessing some sense of my European heritage, specifically my German heritage, but there's definitely a universality to it all.

Yeah, I think so. That's what I hope. I think it worked out that Barbara is universal. That you don't need to leave her there, back there in that time, to ask these questions.

You don't need to know that the film takes place in East Germany in 1980 to be involved in its story.

Yeah, and that's great. That's what's so amazing about it.   
                                     
Barbara is Germany's 2012 official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It  opens in the U.S. on December 21 in more than 10 markets (not just NY & LA) -- an impressive feat, considering, so props to Adopt Films on that front. It will continue to roll out to more than two dozen markets between January and March 2013. For complete play dates, please visit Adopt's website.

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