American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
The woman sits in a park, legs crossed, smoking, relaxed. Two men watch her from a window above the park, and they discuss her, looking down on her. "If she were six, you would say she was sulky," one of the men says. "Since her incarceration, her group of friends has been destroyed." She is meeting the two men, and one says, "She won't come in a moment before it's time." It is an eloquent exchange, and even more eloquently filmed, the woman seen in long shot, from above. She knows she is being watched. Her "relaxation," then, is an act of public theatre.
This is the opening scene in Christian Petzold's effective psychological and political thriller "Barbara," and it sets up the tension and atmosphere with precision and a taut elegance. It is East Germany, 1980. Barbara, the woman, played by Petzold's regular muse, Nina Hoss, is a chilly alert blonde. Barbara is a doctor and has been placed in a rural medical clinic as punishment for applying for an exit visa. Given an apartment by the State, Barbara is under constant surveillance by the Stasi. Andre, the doctor who runs the clinic (played by the gentle, hunky Ronald Zehrfeld), is an informer for the Stasi, and yet he does not seem devoted or fanatical in that role. His primary priority is his patients. He would also like to get to The Hague someday, to see Rembrandt's "Anatomy Lesson" in person, although his hope for being allowed such a trip is dim.
Andre recognizes Barbara's gift at her job during her first shift, when she correctly diagnoses a teenage girl (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) with meningitis, the signs of which the rest of the doctors had missed. Barbara, the cool character self-consciously smoking in the park, is an entirely different person at her job. The girl has escaped from Torgau, a Socialist work camp nearby, and Barbara treats her with a mischievous warm camaraderie, and reads to her at night. Barbara's choice of book is significant: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
In Mark Twain's classic, Huck and Jim, on the run, take to the Mississippi River in a raft, loosening the fetters that bind them on the mainland, all while plunging deeper and deeper into slave country. Barbara, who has secret rendezvous in a nearby forest with a lover from West Germany, smokes expensive black market cigarettes, and has mysterious meetings with people who surreptitiously hand her packets of money, is a flight risk: you can sense that in her tense posture, and in her wild-looking eyes flicking out the window at the sound of every car horn.