This review was updated on February 18, 2005
Two separate narratives — a French woman searching for her stolen child and a pair of young Berlin drifters — never quite interlock in “Ghosts,” a disappointing entry by talented German writer-director Christian Petzold. Working again with rising young thesp Julia Hummer, with whom he made the riveting “The State I Am In” four years ago, Petzold brings his customarily cool gaze to emotionally discombobulated characters, but this time fails to evoke the almost mystical connections that have given his pics such a special flavor (“Something to Remind Me,” “Wolfsburg”). German-French co-prod looks set for scattered fest dates and limited arthouse play in Europe.
To the ascetic strains of a Bach cantata, Francoise Hurel (Marianne Basler) and her husband, Pierre (Aurelien Recoing) arrive in Berlin on what later is revealed to be another trip to find their daughter, Marie, stolen in a supermarket years ago, while still a young child. Meanwhile, in a city park, Nina (Hummer), who’s working as a garbage collector, watches silently as another young woman, Toni (German-Swiss actress Sabine Timoteo), is attacked by two men.
Nina later returns to comfort Toni, and an uneasy friendship starts between them, the former an introverted dreamer staying at a home for problem teens, the latter a streetwise babe who lives by stealing and aspires to become an actress. It’s also clear Nina feels emotionally and physically attracted to her assured new friend, and that Toni is happy to encourage this feeling, at least for the time being.
Things are less clear with the Francoise-Pierre narrative, which is only starting to come into focus, and plays more like a separate French-lingo art movie. In a clunky plot contrivance, Francoise catches sight of the two women from her hotel window and follows them, confronting Nina with the news that she is actually her long-lost daughter. Francoise’s evidence of a telltale scar on Nina’s ankle checks out, but there’s no time to verify the clincher — a heart-shaped mole on Nina’s back — before Toni, who thinks Francoise is just a wacko, drags Nina away.
Script, by Petzold and his “State” collab, Harun Farocki, drifts in several directions, providing little extra depth to either character. At a swanky party at the manse of a director (Benno Fuermann), Toni reveals her sexual opportunism and Nina, even more confused, is left to settle the mystery of whether Francoise is her mother or not.
Petzold’s best films have always spun a magnetic web of emotional complicity between his characters. However, “Ghosts,” with its flip-flopping between narratives — of which only that of the German girls builds any momentum — never seems to get off the starting-blocks. Idea probably looked good on paper but hardly coheres into a single movie, especially with the extra problem of German and French cultural/thesping differences.
Still, when they’re together on screen, Hummer and Timoteo show an involving chemistry, with the former, who’s made a career so far from giving dour, shambling characters an inner fascination, impressively playing against the more forceful Timoteo, entirely believable as a tough young wannabe.
Tech package, as usual in Petzold’s movies, is clean and ultra-precise, with d.p. Hans Fromm, who lensed the striking “Something to Remind Me,” discreetly catching the flavor of summertime Berlin. However, even at 86 minutes, pic seems stretched, more a rough sketch than a fully worked out movie.