Germany selects Berlinale winner 'Barbara' for the foreign-language Oscar race

Posted by · 9:37 am · September 1st, 2012

A little over a week ago, I mentioned that Germany had announced a shortlist of eight possibilities for their official submission in this year’s Best Foreign Language Film race — and had evidently ceded Michael Haneke’s French-Austrian-German co-production “Amour” to Austria this time, after beating their neighboring state in the tussle to submit “The White Ribbon” three years ago.

I had only seen one of the options on the list, but still found it hard to imagine they could make a better choice than “Barbara,” Christian Petzold’s excellent, broadly acclaimed Cold War drama about a female doctor in rural East Germany circa 1980, wrestling with her conscience over whether or not to defect to the West.

Happily, that’s exactly what they’ve chosen — giving Telluride audiences an extra reason to check “Barbara” out as it has its North American premiere there this weekend, before travelling on to both the Toronto and New York festivals. The film already has a US distributor in newish indie outfit Adopt Films, so Petzold’s team can now just bask in the further kudos they’re likely to receive on the fall festival track.

Our heads may be fixed on Venice and Telluride at the moment, but cast your mind back if you can to February’s Berlinale, where “Barbara” premiered, and wound up winning the Best Director award for Petzold. It was one of my top films of the fest — alongside “Tabu” and “Sister,” both of which, as it happens, have been picked up by Adopt Films too. (The newbies also nabbed Golden Bear winner “Caesar Must Die”; they were on it at Berlin.) In my short festival review of the film, I wrote:  

At the risk of invoking bland cultural stereotypes, this gravely humorous, sourly affecting character-study-as-thriller is as quintessentially, well, German a film as you’ll see all year. Across such similarly stoic films as “Yella” and his “Postman Always Rings Twice” riff “Jerichow,” Petzold has established a subtly distinctive brand of deliberate containment, but “Barbara” is perhaps his most expansive, deeply etched film yet: a study of social and self-isolation across the fraught political borders of 1980 East Germany that only incrementally reveals itself as a taciturn love story, it mines the same drably underlit history of crossover hit “The Lives of Others” with more teasingly ambiguous results.

I obviously wasn’t thinking ahead to the Oscars at that point, but the comparison to “The Lives of Others” is a pertinent one. Germany has been something of a fixture in the foreign-language race of late, scoring six nominations in the past 10 years (and making the nine-film shortlist with “Pina” last year), scoring each time with a politically charged period piece — and “Barbara” again fits that description.

It’s a familiar joke that Academy voters are powerless to resist Holocaust dramas, but more recent German history has also rung their bell, with “The Baader Meinhof Complex” sneaking a nod in 2008 and, of course, “The Lives of Others” coming from behind to win in 2006. “Barbara” shares enough of the latter’s stoic Stasi-era gravity for voters to forge an association with Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s arthouse hit in their minds, which could make it a formidable contender in the race, provided the branch doesn’t deem it a little too reserved. (I think Petzold’s is the better film, but that’s neither here nor there.) In any event, all those fall festival slots can only boost its profile. Well played, Germany.

Meanwhile, two other countries have added submission to the pile. Venezuela has entered multi-stranded urban drama “Rock Paper Scissors.” while Serbia has opted for “When Day Breaks,” a drama about a music professor and Holocaust survivor who learns that his father was a Nazi informant. What was I saying about Holocaust dramas?

We’re listing the submission as they come through over at the category’s Contenders page.

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