Pilgrims In the Rhineland: The Haunted and the Haunters

in 21st Drama Short Film Festival

by Michael Pattison

It came as a relief. In a field of nearly 60 films, Benjamin Pfohl’s Ghosts (Totes land) announced itself immediately as the best film in Drama Short Film Festival’s international competition. Pfohl’s film, 30 minutes in length, tells the tale of Annika (Daniela Schulz), a young woman whose widowed mother, Monika (Saskia Vester), remains stubbornly resistant to the demands of big business. More specifically, mother and daughter are the last residents of a small town in Rhineland Germany that has been eviscerated, its inhabitants displaced and relocated to allow for the expansion of a nearby Tagebau (open-pit mine). With the town’s final destruction impending, Annika and Monika endure threat and humiliation. One night, they hear a sound on the roof: locals stealing their satellite dish, unaware that the house hasn’t been abandoned.            

There’s a more immediate threat. Annika, roaming the disembowelled streets of her town, encounters a suited man (André M. Hennicke) who drives an Audi through this suburban wasteland as if it’s a film-set built especially for him. Tailing him into an alley, Annika sees the man urinating against a wall; turning to see her watching him, he smiles, brazenly implying the ghost town is already his. The stranger, a few years Annika’s senior, is a negotiator employed by the mining company whose giant bucket-wheel excavators throb a rhythmic, premonitory dirge. Here solely to coerce the two women into relocation, he offers to drive Annika home from the nearest convenience store. A mutual attraction develops, and the two consummate their lust in the empty gymnasium of a long-abandoned school. This bodily exchange complete, the stranger moves in with more predatory instinct: sign the contract, he tells the women, and we’ll let you leave. Annika, previously against a continued occupation of the land, finds herself defending the family home.              

At times, Ghosts stretches plausibility. To begin with, it’s doubtful that Annika, however rebellious, might be attracted to Hennicke’s palpably untrustworthy sleazebag, while their sex scene—a consensual affair, though one seems to enjoy it more than the other—goes on for too long. Nevertheless, the film’s physical setting grounds proceedings with a compelling, documentarian edge. Indeed, it comes as no surprise to learn that Pfohl, a student at Munich’s University of Television and Film, lists among his previous credits a 2013 documentary named Amazigh Geister Land, which he completed as part of an exchange programme with Tunisian film students.                

The emphasis upon landscape—whether the grinding sprawl of the mining area or the eerily quiet streets of Annika’s town—is immediately evident: Tim Kuhn’s exceptional cinematography, full of sulphuric yellows and dirty browns, perfectly captures the sickly, injurious atmosphere of life by a giant surface mine, and his deep, shadowy contrasts help to convey a world that is at once insidious and muscular—even, perhaps, seductive. The film’s third act, which shifts gears into a heightened thriller, lends further credence to the view that this film is, in essence, a kind of revisionist western, in which two vulnerable but increasingly determined women must stand up to the ruthless representatives of the propertied class—and must do so at any cost.            

Ghosts isn’t merely a genre work. An objective historical context underpins the film. For more than half a century, Germany has mined more lignite (brown coal) than any other nation. In the 1980s it mined 388 million metric tons, a figure that had fallen to 183 million in 2013—which was still more than half of that of the second-highest nation, Russia (73 million metric tons). On 8 September, 2013, the German edition of The Local, an English-language European news site, reported that Immerath, a tiny town in western Germany, was to be “wiped off the map to allow energy giant RWE to enlarge its huge open-pit lignite mine of Garzweiler.” In fact, there are two surface mines at Garzweiler, which in any case is named after the village that previously existed on the site.            

On that occasion, the village was resettled to Jüchen, some ten miles north of the original site by road. The first Garzweiler mine, functionally named Garzweiler I, was a 41-miles² area, while Garzweiler II is 30-miles² and expanding. The lignite mined there is used for power generation at nearby energy plants owned by RWE. As the Local report notes, “The site of Garzweiler I, in operation since 1983, has had its day. It is being filled in progressively with earth dug out of Garzweiler II. Between them the old and the new pit are the size of central Paris.” At that point, about 100 of Immerath’s 900 inhabitants were waiting to be resettled. In total, 7,600 people were displaced—to odiously named New Immerath, specially built in Erkelenz, the same district towards which Garzweiler II, by some cruel fate, is already expanding.              

“Their dead have been relocated to a cemetery [in New Immerath],” the article reads. In one scene in Ghosts, Annika discovers that her dead father’s grave has been dug up, his coffin transported elsewhere without the family’s permission. And though it’s a somewhat hysterical response to this ongoing history, Pfohl’s film is wholly refreshing in the way it foregrounds such events. Speaking more generally, it was one of about three films in Drama’s international competition that dealt directly with the financial crisis and the consequent concentration of capital by big business at the expense of ordinary people.                

Perhaps it was this broad dearth of such politicised engagement, or perhaps it was the internal strengths of Pfohl’s film, that makes the shotgun-wielding conclusion of Ghosts so cathartic: a despairing cry against the inevitable. Again, I quote the Local article: “One thing is certain: as the price of pollution rights has collapsed on the European market, and after Germany announced its phase-out of nuclear power, lignite extracted from Garzweiler has a bright future… The licence granted to RWE allows the energy giant to extract 1.3 billion tonnes of lignite by 2045 on the site.” And the throbs of monster machines continue into Ghosts’ end credits.   

Michael Pattison