You need not be a parent to understand the concern – the hourly concern – with a child's well-being. These feelings are naturally more acute when the children are younger, more vulnerable, more helpless against the tides of man and machine that conspire to end our days. But they do not abate. If it is true that we always view our children in their eternal innocence, as perfect little mammals and miracles, then we do not rest as they age and take life into their own soft hands. Life is short enough without our worries about someone whose existence we determined and began; life is long enough to hope that they will be healthy, happy, and capable of fulfilling every molecule of their potential. And what if the unthinkable occurs due to our own negligence? What if cutting a corner results not in time regained but hell released? Such is the baleful lot of a character in this film.
We begin in Germany with a handsome, middle-aged fellow in an expensive German car listening to this work. That Bach's cantata treats of affliction, of the endless suffering of those who believe and are not believed in, of those who have lost and can never recover, is not insignificant. But before we can wonder about this man's aims, we are taken to a mildly littered public park and the juvenile delinquents tasked with maintaining Germany's immaculateness. Here we find Nina (Julia Hummer), who does not meet many, if any modern film heroine criteria. She is not attractive, intelligent, self-aware, confident, or interesting; if we were to dub her average, we might insult the greater part of our own populaces. No, Nina's fate is wretched, even if she inhabits arguably the most comfortable of earth's regions. As we first see her, her attention is attracted to something almost out of view: a woman being manhandled by two stronger beings. Our initial impression – which will, in no small irony, turn out to be rather fitting – is of a prisoner herded away by the law's long and persuasive arms. Nina's intuition, however, informs her otherwise, and we follow our joint quarry just out of the camera's view, just around a corner or tree, just enough steps in front of us to prevent identification of what is taking place. Our camera will enjoy this frustrating distance as a vibrant metaphor for our plot, which I cannot wholly conceal, as that renders a review nearly impossible. What we can say is that Nina pursues this trio, finds in the rough a very fake diamond – in this case, an earring – interrupts what might have been a hideous crime, and alters, if for a day or two, her miserable existence. And for a day or two she will have the companionship of Toni (Sabine Timoteo).
Toni may be the exact opposite of Nina, or she simply may be cloaking her insecurities in masculine bile. Her later actions suggest she has long since accustomed herself to humiliation, subordinance, and dependence; in other words, she is a perfect exemplification of a drug addict. This point is only made implicitly: her homelessness, shoplifting, pathological lies, and flailing power line of sexuality all bespeak terrible thirsts. But it is when we remember the first scene, when two ruffians who might have easily taken her honor take instead a few shots to her ribs, that we recognize the indebted pickpocket or substance abuser. Why doesn't Nina see all this? It is one of the film's finest conceits that Nina – who is neither a genius nor a credulist – does see it. She quickly identifies Toni as trouble yet wants to help her in the way that no one has ever bothered to help a teenage orphan who picks up trash in Berlin parks. Interposed with this Sapphic tale is the errand of Pierre, our opening scene's driver (Aurélien Recoing), which turns out to be the fetching of his wife Françoise (Marianne Basler) from a Berlin sanatorium. Françoise has been very sick for, well, about fifteen years now, when she committed the inexpiable sin of leaving her toddler daughter in a shopping cart for a minute unattended. Common sense screams that no one who really loves her child would ever do this; nevertheless, the warning persists for the unthinkable exception that for every parent is so very thinkable. Since the pain of such a mistake is insuperable, Françoise comes to Berlin more than once every year armed with forensic sketches of what her daughter would look like. Near our film's end, we are shown these sketches as well as the security camera footage from that Berlin supermarket and it curdles our blood. We tremble at the predator's alacrity, as well as at the likelihood that this is what Françoise sees every night when she tries so pathetically to fall asleep.
How this childless French couple's story intertwines with that of a German orphan will not surprise even the most callow of viewers, but Petzold sees most plots as a contrivance. What matters to him, and should matter to the discerning admirer of his cinema, is how he works almost exclusively from a woman's point of view while avoiding the topoi typically reserved for females (if those subjects do not immediately spring to mind, you are reading the right pages). Perhaps for that very reason were critics not fond of Ghosts, which offers merely what its title promises: lonely strands of spectral existences, figures bound to the belief, as Petzold himself once observed, that "love can bring them back to life." Numerous vignettes show us what exactly these characters will do for love. There is an ex gratia breakfast that ends in tragedy; a remarkable soliloquy at a moment we could not possibly have expected; and a long and beautiful march out of the asylum, with a nurse opening a series of doors, one heavier than the next, then looking back at Françoise with mounting resentment. There also obtains, throughout our film, an equable camera as curious and desperate as the characters it stalks. But strangely enough, the most desperate is not Françoise but Toni. Timoteo's eyes and gait alone say everything she could ever express, and as a dingy, gamblesome, unabashed seducer, if one who must think ahead for her next pillow and meal, she is hypnotic. So when Françoise wrongly identifies the Bachian cantata's conductor as Gardiner, not Richter (as Pierre gently corrects her), should we see any symbolism in the German name's triumph over the Latinate? Or in the fact that Richter is German for judge, both the terrestrial and the heavenly? For some, indeed, there is no end to their affliction.