German film star Nina Hoss grew up viewing East Germany as a foreign country. Now she’s on the verge of carrying its flag at the Academy Awards.
In Christian Petzold’s “Barbara,” Germany’s entry for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Hoss stars as a doctor hoping to escape East Germany. After expressing that desire officially, her character is dispatched to the hinterlands, where she suspects that everyone around her — including the fellow doctor for whom she may be developing feelings — could be reporting to the secret police. To preserve her chance of escape, Barbara must be suspicious of anyone and everyone.
For a girl who grew up near Stuttgart, a populous German city home to the luxury cars of Mercedes-Benz, fearing your own government was more confusing than familiar.
“For me, being born deep down in the West, I always considered the German Democratic Republic as a kind of prison,” she told the audience during a Q&A Tuesday night after TheWrap’s screening of “Barbara” at the Sundance Sunset Cinemas in West Hollywood. “I couldn’t understand the concept of a country not allowing its people to leave and come back when they want to, or express whatever they think or feel.”
Hoss later moved to Berlin to attend acting school, and chose to live on the east side to get to know that other part of Germany. She learned the pain many still felt from years of oppression, years of separation from the West.
Yet she still always felt like a foreigner in a homeland. So as she embarked on this cinematic journey, her main goal was making that fear of government an instinctive feeling.
“What I was after was the atmosphere I hadn’t experienced myself – total mistrust,” Hoss told Steve Pond, TheWrap's awards editor, who moderated the Q & A. “How is it that whenever you really want to talk about something you have to go into the forest? You sometimes can’t even trust your husband or wife. What is this feeling?”
To achieve that intimacy with mistrust, Hoss started with reading and research, but also relied heavily on personal interactions. One actress who also appeared in the movie explained a trait critical to staying safe, one also employed by her potential captors – lying.
People on the verge of escaping, she said, must lie to the ones closest to them, ensuring that no one can betray their plans.
“She had to lie into the faces of the people she loved by saying ‘yeah when I’m back we’ll have dinner,” Hoss said.
Now that Hoss has come out the other side of this journey, her and Petzold's greatest fear was how East Germans would receive the film.
Though it conveys a pervasive sense of fear and suspicion, it also paints a kinder portrait of East Germany than many other films. The characters are humanized, less cold than the typical Stasi enforcer. Visually, the film is also more colorful than most films set on the Soviet side of Germany.
For that reason alone, one woman was thankful.
“There was one moment where a woman came up to me and said, 'Thank you so much for this movie,'” Hoss said. “It was exactly like that. It was also beautiful. The way the grass is portrayed, the way we worked.”
At the same time, there was a man who thanked her for getting it right — in another way.
“The man said, 'Thank you so much, you portrayed it just how it was: It was shit.'”
“I thought, ‘ugh.’ Whatever they had experienced in this country, they could find in the movie," Hoss said. "Then we got something."