Barbara Sukowa started as a stage actress in major German theatres. She performed as Marion in Büchner's Danton's Death, and a number of Shakespearian roles: Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Rosalind in As You Like It, and Desdemona in Othello. Sukowa also performed in Ibsen's The Master Builder and as The Marquise de Merteuil in Heiner Mueller's Quartett at the Salzburg Festival. Performing in English, the actress worked on a production of The Cherry Orchard (2000) in New Jersey and in Arthur Kopit's Because He Can.
Sukowa's cinematic breakthrough came with her portrayal of Mieze in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), which earned her the German Best Young Actress Award. Her award-winning performances did not end there. She went on to win a German Film Awards (Gold) award for her performance in title role in Fassbinder's Lola. Her performance in Margarethe von Trotta's film Die bleierne Zeit (1981) earned her the Best Actress Award at the Venice Film Festival. She also received a Best Actress Award at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival for her work in von Trotta's film Rosa Luxemburg. Sukowa also earned the Best Actress Award at the Montreal World Film Festival for her role in the film The Invention of the Curried Sausage by Ulla Wagner. She is also a three-time winner at the prestigious Bavarian Film Award as Best Actress for her roles in In the Name of Innocence (1997), Vision –from the life of Hildegard von Bingen (2010), and Hannah Arendt (2013).
In addition, Sukowa has developed a second career as a classical music narrator and singer. She performed the Speaker's role in Arnold Schönberg's Pierrot Lunaire first with the Schoenberg Ensemble under Reinbert de Leeuw, then with ensembles in Paris, London, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Madrid, Rome, Tokyo, Salzburg, Los Angeles, and in New York City with Mitsuko Uchida and the Brentano Quartett. She has also performed the Speaker's role in Schönberg's Gurrelieder with the Berlin Philharmonic and Claudio Abbado, and the Los Angeles Philharmonics under Esa–Pekka Salonen. Moreover, Sukowa is the Speaker on the recording with Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic.
Sukowa also narrated Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf both in concert and on record, as well as a recording of Mendelssohn's music for A Midsummer Night's Dream. She has performed in Arthur Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera and as Cassandra in the American premiere of Michael Jarrell's Cassandre (2006) at Carnegie Hall alongside the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. Also at Carnegie Hall she sang the US premiere of In the Wonderful Month of May, an adaptation of Schubert and Schumann Lieder by Reinbert Deleeuw and the Schoenberg Ensemble. The recording, produced by Winter&Winter Records, received an Echo Klassik, an Edison Award and a Grammy Nomination.
Amongst all the aforementioned achievements, Sukowa is the lead singer of the Band the X-Patsys, which she founded with visual artists Jon Kessler and Robert Longo. The band performed in New York (Highline ballroom, Poisson Rouge), Berlin, and in 2011 in Paris at the Espace Cardin. The band's CD, Devouring Time: Barbara Sukowa and the X-Patsys, was chosen in Germany on the "List of Best New Releases."