Nina Hoss is distinguished by her ability to invoke dignity. First, this quality imbues the character Hoss is playing, or gives the character a weight or presence that is palpable, and yet the dignity seems to spring from some other, difficult to describe source. I know nothing about Nina Hoss, and frankly, it is not my business to know if this dignity comes from her own character. All I have is her performances, and they are certainly enough. But no matter where the dignity comes from, it is the platform from which Hoss works, and while it brings her characters to life, it also suggests a lingering, valuable presence, at once inspiring and a reminder of the strength of human beings.
A good example of this dignity is Barbara, directed by Christina Petzold. Barbara is the account of a physician, who, in East Germany in the early eighties, at the height of the regime, has been arrested, done time in a prison, and is banished for pollical reasons to the sticks, where she practices medicine in a small clinic, run by Andre, another physician (beautifully, if not perfectly played by Ronald Zehrfeld).
The story is simple. Barbara is considering an attempt to escape to the west. She is entangled by her work as a physician. And in her attachment to Andre, cool at first, but increasing.
Still, her dignity is enhanced by a foil, or an antagonist, and this is the mood of surveillance, the constant, almost miasma like sense that in this world you will be watched, and if you have been in trouble you will be really watched.
This sense of surveillance is in the mood, and in the details of Barbara’s life in the country side of east Germany. Still, putting mood aside, the surveillance is made real, or given a physical existence by the presence of a Stasi agent, played by Rainer Bock.
Now, a word has to be said about Rainer Bock. I don’t think there are many actors who can invoke the ominous the way he can. He plays the frightening bureaucrat, or policeman, whether a member of the Gestapo (as in Never Look Away) or the Stasi, as here. His face, and his reptilian coolness suggest to us that he is the cop we never want to have interrogate us, or the man we want nothing to do with. He is a figure from our worst nightmare. And he does this with the qualities of his face and his unblinking gaze.
But what about the vibrant, constant dignity that Hoss brings to Barbara. Where do we see it and where does it come from?
The first hint is in an opening scene. Andre and an Andre Schutz, the Stasi agent played by Brock, are looking out a window of the clinic where Barbara is going to work. In front of it there is a bus stop and a bench. Nina Hoss gets off the bus and walks over to the bench. The Stasi agent looks at Hoss and says this is typical of her. If she has an appointment at 10:00, she will not be one minute early. Hoss, in her east German clothes, a sort of sick colored sweater, sits down on the bench and lights a cigarette. We see her smoke, one leg over another, her expression, her posture, the way she smokes a cigarette are all definite. Yes, she seems to say, I have to come to the sticks, but no one, and I mean no one should think I am not furious.
The Brock, the Stasi agent, says she is “sulky.”
Well, it is clear that a Stasi agent’s sulkiness is a woman’s dignified defiance.
There are other details dropped in about the surveillance and her attitude about it. For instance, when Andre drives Barbara home after on her first day at the clinic, she says, “You should have asked me at the cross roads where to turn. But you know where I live and that means they have talked to you.”
One of the keenest moments with this surveillance is when Barbara gets away from her minders and goes to collect some money she will need to flee. Since the Stasi has lost her, they search her apartment, while she waits, and the progression of this scene is such that at the end, a woman appears, goes into the bathroom and puts on a pair of latex gloves to give Barbara and intimae search.
And how does Hoss bring that dignified resistance to these scenes?
To explain or to hint at how she does this it is necessary to talk about her face, and in particular, her eyes. Her face is attractive, but the item that distinguishes it, in her films, is the ability to invoke a variety of dislike, subtle and yet powerful, as though the moral flaws of those around her have a stink.
But it is her eyes that really do the job. They seem large, dark, and in them we see the depths of resistance, fury, smoldering contempt. It is all in the glance.
Still, it is important to say that while she seems dignified, it is not arrogance, and in fact it is something else altogether. The quality that makes her performance so haunting is that this dignity is a character’s attempt to hang on to a quality of being human that everything in this world, of the Stasi, of the East German regime, wants to take away from people.
There are two events in this film that drive it forward. The first is the arrival of Stella, a girl who is being brought in from a work camp. She is probably seventeen or so, and is fighting the police who are bringing her to the clinic. Andre is about to give her the needle to calm her down, but Barbara takes one look at her, and asks her if she can drop her chin towards her chest. Stella can’t. She has meningitis.
Barbara and Stella have an immediate recognition of each other, in that they are both defiant.
The other event that drives this forward is the arrival of a young man who has tried to commit suicide. Andre thinks that this young man is not recovering correctly, and as Barbara looks after him and talks to the young man’s girlfriend, she realizes that there is something wrong. He has probably developed a cerebral clot and needs surgery.
The performance here by Ronald Zehrfeld is at once charming and suggests a man who has been partially broken, but not completely. He tries, in the beginning, to be friendly to Barbara, but she resists with that constant, isolated refusal to be drawn into anything. Still, Andre persists, his presence one of warm interest perfectly combined with a despair just barely under control.
Still, Barbara does begin to respond, and her attachment grows. The dignified aspect of this is that her attraction advances because of Andre’s moral presence.
For instance, there is a scene in which Barbara comes to see Andre when he is caring for the dying wife of the Stasi agent. Afterward, Barbara asks with a kind of fury if Andre is in the habit of helping “assholes.”
He says, “Yes, when they are dying.”
This reminds her of what it means to be a physician.
The quality that one takes away from a movie with Nina Hoss is that interior, dignified knowledge of right and wrong and a standard of behavior that is constant, not to mention that it suggests an inspiring notion of the best of human awareness. Or the refusal to be beaten in those qualities that matter most.
She doesn’t do this only in Barbara, but in other films like Jerichow, or in an even more difficult role in A Woman In Berlin. She is inspiring in an off-screen way in her constant reminder of one of the most important aspects of being human, which is our dignity.