East Germany in 1980: Barbara (Nina Hoss) is a physician who arrives for her first day at a small rural hospital near the Baltic Sea. She had been at the prestigious Charité hospital in East Berlin but, after she'd filed an "Ausreiseantrag" – an official request to leave East Germany – she had been incarcerated and transferred to the small town where she is still monitored by the Stasi. She is punished - for the hours in which they cannot find her - by searching her house, strip-searching and cavity-searching her.
In her new job, she works in pediatric surgery, a department led by chief physician André Reiser. Reiser eventually tells her a story (whose veracity she questions) of how he too had lost his job at a more prestigious hospital in Berlin – he was responsible for an accident with an incubator that left two premature infants blind. The Stasi had agreed to keep it quiet if he agreed to relocate to the provincial hospital and to work for them. So now Reiser reports on suspected people including Barbara.
Early on, when the police deliver Stella, a young runaway from a labour camp, to the hospital for the fourth time, Reiser thinks Stella is malingering. Barbara intervenes and orders removal of the restraints on the patient, readily diagnosing her with meningitis. During her recovery, Stella develops a strong attachment to Barbara, whose welcome bedside manner includes reading the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to her. Stella is pregnant and wants to raise the child. Wanting to escape from the country and to have her child in a new land, she implores Barbara to take her with her. However, they cannot find grounds for keeping Stella longer and soon she is returned against her will to the labour camp.
Meanwhile, Barbara makes secretive bicycle treks, to a place to stash her secretly received funds for escape, and to the woods where she meets with her West German lover Jörg, who has been supplying her with prized goods and is preparing for her escape. When she meets him for a second rendezvous in an "Interhotel" (an East-German hotel for foreigners), he tells her of his finalised plan for her escape the following weekend: she will be picked up in a small boat in the Baltic Sea and taken the short distance to Denmark.
As the two doctors spend more and more time together, Reiser begins making romantic overtures, which she rebuffs even while she is impressed by Reiser in turn. He has built a laboratory, to test samples on-site, and he has created his own serums with which to treat patients.
One day before her planned escape, Barbara is on duty caring for a critically ill patient named Mario, whose suicide attempt had landed him in the hospital. Barbara discovers that Mario has not been recovering from his traumatic head injury as well as believed and requires immediate brain surgery. She tracks Reiser down on his day off, to inform him of Mario's urgent need of surgery. She finds him at the home of the Stasi agent who has been overseeing her monitoring. Reiser is treating the agent's wife, who is dying of cancer. Reiser persuades her to return to the hospital – the same night of her planned escape – to perform the surgery, with her assistance as anaesthesiologist during the operation.
Following her agreement to be there, yet still planning her escape, Barbara accepts Reiser's invitation to let him cook a lunch for her at his home on the same day. When Reiser finally tells Barbara that he is happy to have her there with him, she kisses him. Then she abruptly pulls away from him, and returns to her house to continue preparations for the escape.
During this time, Stella flees the labour youth detention programme again and stumbles onto Barbara's doorstep the very night of Barbara's intended escape by sea. Barbara takes her to the agreed-upon area on the beach, where she is to meet a person who will help smuggle her out. Barbara writes a note to accompany Stella that is presumably addressed to Jörg, explaining why she has chosen to let Stella escape, instead of herself. After helping Stella to a waiting raft, and a skin diver who will help her escape by sea, she returns to the hospital. She takes a seat, across from André who is watching over Mario, at his bedside. The implication of this last scene is that she has decided to stay in the East, to be with Reiser. In a final close-up, their eyes meet in mutual understanding.Nina Hoss as Barbara Wolff
Ronald Zehrfeld as Dr André Reiser
Rainer Bock as Stasi Officer Klaus Schütz
Jasna Fritzi Bauer as Stella
Christina Hecke as Karin
Mark Waschke as Jörg
Peter Benedict as Gerhard
Jannik Schümann as Mario
Alicia von Rittberg as Angie
Susanne Bormann as Steffi
Claudia Geisler as nurse Schlösser
Deniz Petzold as Angelo
Rosa Enskat as janitor Bungert
Barbara has a rating of 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 75 reviews and an average score of 7.7/10. Barbara has a weighted average score of 86/100 on the critical aggregator website Metacritic, indicating "universal acclaim".
Writing in The Guardian, film critic Peter Bradshaw said of Barbara: "The weird oppression and seediness of the times is elegantly captured, and Hoss coolly conveys Barbara's highly strung desperation." Bradshaw awarded the film four stars out of five. The New York Times designated Barbara a critics' pick. In her review, Manohla Dargis said of the film: "Barbara is a film about the old Germany from one of the best directors working in the new: Christian Petzold. For more than a decade Mr. Petzold has been making his mark on the international cinema scene with smart, tense films that resemble psychological thrillers, but are distinguished by their strange story turns, moral thorns, visual beauty and filmmaking intelligence." Steven Rea wrote that "Christian Petzold's masterfully hushed, suspenseful thriller percolates with dread....Hoss, wearing her blond hair pulled back tight, and wearing an expression of inscrutable melancholy, gives a performance that doesn't feel like a performance at all. Her Barbara is absolutely real, and absolutely trapped. The film is aching, and exquisite."
In the Chicago Sun-Times, Sheila O'Malley concluded "This is well-trod ground for Petzold, but never has it been so fully realized, so palpable, as in 'Barbara.'" In her article on Barbara, film scholar Christina Gerhardt argues that Petzold draws on melodrama and combines this genre with slow realism to add a chapter to post-Wende films about the GDR.