German director Christian Petzold's Ghosts (Gespentser) drifts by with all the cool detachment one can muster in the face of a pointless life or a soul-destroying mistake. A mannered, lulling tale that fights hard to keep roiling emotions under the surface, Ghosts unfolds like a somnambulist's travelogue of the banal; anonymous green-spaces and sere parkways enveloping figures while constant breezes hasten thoughts into yesterday. Less an emotional powerhouse, this somber affair instead suffuses the mind with practiced, casual indifference, smoldering, desperately needing to burst into flame.
Disaffected 17-year-old Nina (Julia Hummer) wanders with barely reflexive curiosity through a verdant park flattened by dull, overcast skies. She's picking up trash with members of her group home and hardened social workers, when she spots an assault. Drifting on the periphery, she ultimately connects with the victim, a tough young woman named Toni (Sabine Timoteo). While these two connect as if by chance, we shift back and forth - at first with seemingly zero connection - to Françoise and her husband on their annual pilgrimage to the city in which their daughter was kidnapped years earlier. What are at first dully rapturous and vaguely irritating, these scenarios inevitably intertwine, briefly sparking, before succumbing to an indifferent quelling.
Petzold's measured, outwardly aimless takes enfold you in institutional blankets; you're encompassed and ordered to rest, but victim to indefinable agitation. Nina wandering always through vast, depopulated parks, appears an insect among seas of green that should be luxurious, but aren't. Her life appears without meaning, she's adrift in a void where emotions - if she can't chase them away - are blown off by constant winds that set leaves to rustling on an uneasy frequency. Toni's random acts introduce chaos that threatens to awaken Nina even as institutionalized Germanic detachment in the forms of landscape, her mentors, even her hair, threatens to smother her.
Françoise (Marianne Basler) and her husband Pierre, (Aurélien Recoing) meanwhile, appear so detached from each other and their surroundings as to be in virtual comas. They function perfectly well, properly and with great style, but seem to be simply going through the motions until a crucial instant. It's not until halfway through the movie that we even begin to understand why they're in Berlin, nor why they interact as they do; Françoise willfully, with hidden fragility, Pierre almost as a chastened child, loving but resigned until the end. They dance politely around one another, but their function is no longer as a couple, but cogs in a mechanical simulacra.
Despite all the wind in the trees, this is an almost airless movie, with nary a glimmer of humor, and the intimation that if one desires redemption or closure, one has to dig far deeper than we're capable of doing. For all this, Ghosts is truly assured, powerful filmmaking. It sets you to thinking later, at the oddest moments. Through uniformly powerful, carefully restrained performances - all four principals are equally adept - hypnotic cinematography, and an ambiguous story that demands attention and intelligence, Ghosts manifests a haunting glimpse at exterior lives no longer aware of the beating hearts within.