Christian Petzold's previous few films were all set very firmly in modern Germany -- indeed several of them might be read as an indictment of that modernity, at least in terms of what Petzold takes to be the superficial nature of many contemporary interactions and obsessions. Barbara, by contrast, is set in a small town in Eastern Germany in 1980, though it's unmistakably a Petzold film -- an intense character study, extraordinarily observant of small details of both psychology and setting, with much of the communication elided.
As with films like Wolfsburg, the setting of the film is strangely depopulated -- Petzold's towns seem to be barely inhabited, enhancing the claustrophobic sense that one is always likely to run into someone one knows, though not necessarily for the better. It's an idea given a new resonance in Barbara, where the nature of small-town life brings the titular character, an exiled-from-Berlin doctor played by Petzold favourite Nina Hoss, into contact with the local Stasi man as both object of study and potential provider of healthcare. There's no romanticizing of such interactions, however, as in, say, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others (von Donnersmarck's swift decamping for Hollywood comes as no surprise; it's much harder to imagine Petzold making such a transition).
Petzold's characters are frequently rather poor communicators, or at least they don't say a whole lot on occasion, and yet Petzold's own style is crisp and clear -- a shot of that Stasi man in the building where a family member lies ill tells us all we need to know, while the film's final shot similarly manages to compress a great deal of unsaid business between the two main characters, capping this particular onscreen narrative while opening the way to a new, untold story. Petzold also stitches his story together with what seems to be the world beyond his film, having a character recount the story of an actual book, or describing in great detail the story of a painting; the warmth of these sequences, among the more verbose in the film, suggest that the director is using them to share with us some particularly personal pleasures.