“And I walked towards the music”
Three women caught in disparate existential crises are converging in Christian Petzold‘s Gespenster [Ghosts] to seek answers despite reality only supplying opportunity to exacerbate their already volatile shortcomings. Nina (Julia Hummer) is a late-teen orphan hopeful to discover an avenue towards a brighter future that will assist her in escaping the present. Francoise (Marianne Basler) is a middle-aged woman searching to retrieve something she lost years ago, her past-fueled desperation causing present strife. And Toni (Sabine Timoteo) is a displaced young woman hopping from one potential boarder to the next with her sexuality as a weapon, selfishly in the moment to do whatever’s necessary to get what she wants without past regrets or future guilt. In each other they just might earn their respective hard-fought salvations.
Anyone familiar with Petzold’s oeuvre, however, knows this isn’t likely. He and co-writer Harun Farocki create paths of psychological hardship for their characters so that personal victory isn’t ever the one hundred percent happy ending mainstream cinema would presume. It’s often proven that the thing we crave isn’t necessarily what we need and vice versa. We will take paths towards an ideal only to find we took a wrong turn—that the hope of happiness we thought would be waiting carries sadness and disappointment instead. Don’t dismiss that journey as a wasted one, though. Sometimes the pain wrought in the aftermath is exactly what we need to close that chapter. It’s better to hurt and attempt to move on than lose yourself in the empty promises of fantasy.
One could say all three women are victims of this reality at the start. And two remain there still by the end—albeit a circle of witting self-destruction that may actually be the only thing keeping them going as an unfortunately relevant evil. Past experiences and present cynicism have created their mindsets and attitudes. The tragic event putting Francoise in a psychiatric center and her husband Pierre (Aurélien Recoing) on alert was the kidnapping of their daughter. The resulting pain and guilt cause her to stop every teen that might be her Marie. Our introduction to Toni is through a sexual assault, an event she takes in relative stride as though it wasn’t the first time and won’t be the last. Her life choices make that risk real.
Nina is caught in the middle, a young woman being pulled by the past and pushed towards the future. She yearns for love whether that be via the kind of parental figure her revolving door of foster guardians never were or a companion to spark a new life as though through rebirth. So Nina attaches herself to Toni as a potential protector and lover. She also pauses to listen to Francoise’s pitch when stopped in the street because the chance that she may have found a way to fulfill both her dreams on the same day is too wonderful to pass up. Like many of us have experience enduring, however, these two strangers don’t have the purest intentions even if they too wish that they did.
Francoise yearns for closure, forgiveness, and some cosmic gift to dissolve the suffering and self-hate she has built over time. Toni desires a partner for her latest con with Nina not even being her first choice. Francoise never asks Nina about herself; never attempts to know her or accept she has lived a life with another name even if she is Marie. Toni is nothing if not consistent in her harsh demands for money, food, affection, or dialogue. She will turn on the charm when it’s needed to get what she wants. She does it with Nina, with an ex named Mathias (Philipp Hauß), and a potential new protector in Oliver (Benno Fürmann) with more to offer than the girl she must use to hook him.
Nina therefore walks this life as though caught between worlds. She wants so much to be a part of something that her own identity is forfeit. Self-esteem is non-existent and lies become her default to excuse failures. The only times she’s honest are those moments where her honesty’s targets refuse to hear it. The legitimate possibility she’s Marie allows her to buy into that long shot only to find out embracing it increases the odds of jogging Francoise awake rather than cultivating the propulsion necessary to know the truth. And there’s her declaration of love via a dream of destiny wherein she pours her heart out to win Toni’s affection while unfortunately also helping her achieve her main goal—one she ultimately must leave Nina behind to pursue.
Petzold weaves in and out of their lives, focusing on Nina and Francoise with Toni visible in the background to impact their trajectories. We see the depressed longing in Nina’s face when we meet her working to collect trash in the park, her curiosity to assist Toni enough to approach the violence while her fear in the aftermath keeps her from helping. We see the same look on Francoise’s face when Pierre scoops her up from her latest hospital stay. How they will converge is unknown at this time—we simply go along for the ride and trust Petzold has a reason for their thus far individual and isolated paths. Only upon seeing Francoise look out her window at the two girls do we even know they’re close.
Context is revealed gradually as time moves on with actions propelling the present available to be revisited in the future. No motion or word is wasted as Nina falls pray to the other women’s stories. She searches for her escape through them, leaning on them because of that desire. She refuses to see Francoise as a broken woman or Toni as prone to breaking whatever’s in her path. In this way Nina uses them as much as they do her. She’s willing to ignore the obvious because of hope even as she feels the torture of what their actions bring her. She wants them both as long as they’re fighting for her. Only when they’re done can she see that it’s for herself that she must fight.
The acting is superb with Timoteo embodying Toni’s duplicitous nature with fits of rage and disarming smiles; Basler holding onto her fantasy with enough conviction to literally stop everything in order to continue believing it; and Hummer proving innocently shy and extremely sympathetic. We see ourselves in Nina and her loneliness—her search for inclusion within a world constantly treating her as less than what she is. Nina seeks to be accepted with no strings attached, something neither of the others can offer. Maybe she is Francoise’s daughter and maybe she is Toni’s soul mate. Who knows? They simply cannot look past themselves to treat her as such. And without the freedom from this life to discover her identity, Nina cannot keep pretending they want to or can.