In “Barbara,” the title character, a pediatrician named Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss), has just arrived in a provincial hamlet on the Baltic Sea. She’s been exiled there as punishment for applying for an emigration visa to West Berlin from East Germany, where she enjoyed a cushy life of haute splendors and tenure at the important East Berlin university hospital, Charité. Now she’s this long, gorgeous, glamorous blonde in a sleepy town of brunettes, an alien, really. The movie is set in 1980, and her expulsion is overseen by the Stasi, the oppressive East German secret police. Officers drop by to inspect both Barbara’s modest apartment and eventually Barbara herself.
The movie’s quiet power comes from its air of meticulously maintained suspicion. The Stasi might have conscripted André (Ronald Zehrfeld), the brawny chief of the hamlet medical clinic, to pass along intelligence on Barbara. She knows he’s probably watching her, that anyone at the hospital or in her building has been asked to. So she’s boxed in socially. In the cafeteria, she passes a table where André is eating with other doctors — two women — and sits instead with a nurse. The doctors assume Barbara thinks she’s better than they are. Her chilliness certainly creates that possibility. But what Hoss is asked to play — and does play with great skill — is the fine line between self-protection and hauteur.