BARBARA (Christian Petzold). 105 minutes. Subtitled. Opens December 28. See listing. Rating: NNNN

Newly arrived at a provincial hospital, the doctor is tense. She’s always tense. She doesn’t trust people, and she has good reason. This is East Germany sometime in the early 80s, and everyone is watching her.

Her name is Barbara, and she’s played by Nina Hoss, who co-starred in director Christian Petzold’s Yella and Jericho. She’s the whole show here, and she’s amazing, carrying herself with an impenetrable rigidity. It’s a risky choice to introduce your protagonist as an unreadable cipher, but Hoss is up to the challenge. We can’t stop looking at her.

Petzold and Hoss offer flashes of the person Barbara might have been in her interactions with her patients, and as the film goes on, the slightest changes of expression signal minute cracks in the character’s facade. She’s up to something, ferrying cash from one place to another, but to what end?

The obvious point of comparison is Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck’s 2006 thriller The Lives Of Others, which has a similar setting but a different approach. Barbara isn’t a thriller. It’s a character study of a woman trying desperately not to give herself away, and it’s packed with fascinating power.

Oscar buzz

It’s Germany’s official submission for foreign-language film, so there’s a definite chance. And Nina Hoss has been doing meet-and-greets in L.A., so she might have an outside shot at a best actress nod.

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