BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: German disquiet.

IT’S HARD not to escape the taste of allegory in the film. Maybe it’s academic training that forces me to believe that every post-unification German tale carries the weight of history behind it, but there have been a number of German films recently that have tried to confront the past, isolation, and abandonment. And Ghosts (Gespenter) has it all – a strongly delineated East/West divide, the couple are from France/speak French while the two teenagers are strongly German. There’s a class divide, one side is clearly poor, one side is clear rich, cultured, elitist. There’s the sense of abandonment that’s sieved through the film, the characters are forced to deal with the isolation, the pain that the abandonment causes (both in the past and in the present). But putting aside my allegory readings, the film is a disquieting, understated melodrama. Its characters are people searching for answers, questions, not quite sure of what happened in the past. And audience don’t really know either, the ambiguous ending leaves open multiple interpretations – no-one I’ve talked to after the film had the same view on the events.

The film looks at Nina, a mumbling, gaunt foster-child, escaping from the dreariness of park clean-up and institutional care. She forms a friendship with a girl, Toni, that she meets in a park but there’s something more going on between them (brutally evoked in the monologue she gives at the casting call later), but there’s the pain of adolescence to work through. There’s also a French mother (Francoise) looking for a daughter that was kidnapped years ago – but she refuses to give up in spite of the near impossibility of finding her child. Their paths collide, painfully, awkwardly, that the audience never really know what the truth is. Despite what the father says at the end, there’s still enough doubt lingering.

The characters do feel like ghosts, trapped and drifting in a Berlin purgatory, leaving traces behind of their existence. However, there’s no permanence in their behaviour. It’s doubtful that Toni and Nina will meet again in the same way, and who knows about the relationship between Nina and Francoise. For some, the ambiguity may be frustrating, but the film seeps through the skin. It’s slow-burning, clammy.

Director Christian Petzold is considered one of the leading lights of the Berliner School, a new breed of independent German filmmakers. In Ghosts, Petzold filmed his tortured souls coolly – utilising a static camera that contrasts with the movement of his ghosts, using occasionally jarring editing to create an uneasy tone, and exposing his characters with contemplative takes. There’s a compelling use of space, which services his concerns particularly well. The potent image is that of Nina wandering through the park: a soul seduced with the lure of †he past, the potential for love, and a better life, hunched, resigned, and drifting along in open space with nowhere really to go, or no-one really there to guide her.