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Berlin's ghosts

Anke Leweke is chilled by Christian Petzold's "Ghosts".

The filmmaker Jacques Rivette once wrote that the only justification for art is that it attempts to make people a little less blind, a little less deaf and a little less dumb. In this sense, cinema is like the other arts; one knows that leaves blow in the wind but suddenly, one sees it.

The films of Christian Petzold succeed in showing the world in such a way that the viewer perceives it anew. His most recent film "Gespenster" ("Ghosts") begins in a car driving on the highway around Berlin. The exits fly past, the congress centre, the huge billboards on buildings. In the car, J.S. Bach's cantata "Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis" (I had much grief) is playing. The deeply sad music combined with a light that makes everything look a little sharper gives the banal drive added significance, transposes it into another mode. One begins to wonder what the man behind the wheel is thinking, and what feelings and stories hide behind those facades that are racing by. With this first shot, one enters the film without being pulled into it.

In the next scene, the lonely protagonist (Julia Hummer) is standing on a field in Berlin's Tiergarten. The sound is of rustling leaves; the viewer's eye is drawn to the trees. Nature in Petzold's films seems different, clearer, truer. Maybe it's just that it's so there.

At the same time, the shots have a tense relationship to each other. Precisely because the leaves, trees, streets, things are as they are, the images seem to represent the mythological, symbolic ambiguity of Petzold's stories. "Gespenster" really is a ghost story, due to the restlessness and placelessness of its heroes and the pain that makes them no more than shadows.

The film progresses with an endless sadness, a feeling of final loss. Years ago, a young girl was abducted in front of a supermarket in Berlin. Since then, the desperate mother (Marianne Basler) keeps returning to the city, searching for little girls who look like her lost daughter. The other homeless one in the film is a foster child, lost and yearning: a wanderer through an inhospitable Berlin, from the Tiergarten to the faceless buildings of Potsdamer Platz. The camera follows Julia Hummer: her hunched-up shoulders, her defiant, dragging steps, her lonely little figure. She's an endlessly touching being, a girl who seems to have been wandering forever through the Tiergarten park – which in this context becomes the woods of a German fairy tale. A woods in which dreams come true, in which fears lurk; it connects the inhabitants of today's Berlin with those of the Grimm fairytale "The Shroud".

The impression that these grieving, searching characters are leading parallel lives, always strolling alongside the city, slightly removed, makes the film seem spooky, sinister. One wonders if Petzold's protagonists aren't unsaved ghosts, reincarnations who are longing for and recreating the world according to their feelings. In this world, Julia Hummer (the foster child Nina) is an undead who is only being kept in the here and now by the mother's grief. It's a world in which there are even ghosts of a second order - such as the waif Toni (Sabine Timoteo), who is, for Nina, desire incarnated, at once a comrade, a protector and a capricious lover.

In no other of his films has Christian Petzold been so successful in entangling wishes with reality, structures of desire with perception. At the same time, the characters are close to the characters of his previous films. In his Red Army Faction film "Die innere Sicherheit" (English title: "The State I am In"), a small family consisting of Julia Hummer, Richy Müller and Barbara Auer become the spectral remains of the German Left, forever migrant, on the run in their car. In "Toter Mann" (English title "Something to remind me"), Nina Hoss plays a girl driven by vengeance to find the murderer of her sister. In all these films, the pain of loss and the hatred of the perpetrator turn the protagonist into a kind of phantom: someone who has fallen out of reality and can only await her redemption, as horrible as it might prove to be.

Christian Petzold films all these spirits, ghosts and phantoms with a sober, even crystal clarity. At the same time, they're touching, moving, close. Under his concentrated gaze, they become transparent; sometimes one thinks one can see through the figures, right into their beating hearts.

In one of the most moving scenes in the film, we see how a character slowly opens up her innermost self to become, in a certain way, transparent. It is no coincidence that the scene is a casting call, a situation in which one wants to be seen at any price. Nina and Toni both audition for a film called "Girlfriends". Mumbling and shy, Julia Hummer's character begins an improvised monologue. She tells of a dream - one that everyone knows in some form. Of a girl who's new to a school class. Of the beautiful, idolised queen that exists in every class. Of her desire to be looked at by this queen. We see a girl telling the story of the dream that Petzold's film is showing. We see how a desire has produced a reality that may be no more than a chimera. And we understand that, ghosts being what they may, feelings are the only unshakeable truth of this film.


This article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on September 15, 2005.

Anke Leweke is a film critic for German radio and print media.

translation: nb - let's talk european