Christian Petzold’s 2012 film Barbara opens on a shot of the eponymous Dr. Barbara Wolff on a bus, soon to start her first day of work at the rural hospital to which she has been exiled. It is East Germany in 1980, and she has apparently been sent away for trying to get an exit visa. Most of the story is told from her point of view, and the coolness and suspicion she displays seem justified. Her landlady is prepared to inform on her at any provocation, and her boss at the hospital, André Reiser, has been given the task of submitting reports on her.
Her attitude to Reiser softens over time, but the landlady remains an antagonist. Her first meeting with Barbara is hostile, although she does give her access to an old bicycle. The bicycle comes to be an important thing for Barbara: she uses it to get to a rendezvous in the forest with her West German lover, it is a means of being less dependent on car rides from Reiser (well-intentioned though they might be), and she uses it to gather and hide the cash she needs for her defection. It’s the means to small and larger liberties.
Finding the bicycle leads to the first of two very similar and telling shots. Barbara holds the inner tube in her bath, testing it for air leaks. She moves the tube along, and sure enough, some bubbles appear. It’s part of the process of organising her new life in the small town.
Later in the film we see her hunched over that bath again. This time she’s testing how watertight the package of cash is. Her defection is being planned by her lover, and he’s given her instructions to prepare for a waterborne escape. The shot is nearly identical to the earlier one with the inner tube: over the shoulder, from her point of view. We see her hands holding the objects under the water: one is an element of the everyday and the other is something she could go to prison for. Is it too literal to see this as a metaphor for her taking things into her own hands, in a situation where there is so much that is pushing her to simply acquiesce?
The consonance of the two shots, the tight framing, suggests the subterfuge and attention that Barbara needs to defect are demanded similarly in the small everyday acts of her life. Not that the everyday is without consequence: even getting hold of stockings and western cigarettes needs secrecy, and being out too late elicits questioning from the authorities. It’s a suggestion that, for Barbara, both the everyday and the remarkable are not that distinct, and that the struggle to live an ordinary life can call for extraordinary measures.