Director: Christian Petzold
2007 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
There is a secret at the heart of Yella, and as the saying goes, if I told you what it was I’d have to kill you. This atmospheric film, which won for its star Nina Hoss the Silver Bear for best actress at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, has a curiously basic quality. The story is straightforward, but details are lacking. Like Waiting for Godot, Yella and the people she encounters behave purposefully and aimlessly at the same time.
Yella (Hoss) lives in a small town in Germany with her father (Christian Redl). When we first encounter her, she is on a train, changing her red blouse behind the curtains of her compartment for a simple black sweater set. As she walks home from the train station, an SUV pulls alongside her. Yella registers alarm at the man behind the wheel. It’s Ben (Hinnerk Schönemann), her estranged husband and former business partner. He climbs out of the SUV and starts walking alongside her at a respectful distance. At first, he is complimentary. He guesses that she got a new job, a good one. “I can tell by the way you walk.” When he tells her how much he misses her, Yella becomes defensive. This turns Ben hostile. He blames her for the bankruptcy of his business and for going on with her life. Yella hurries home.
In fact, Yella has gotten a new job in Hanover, two hours away. Her loving father and she share a last evening at home, and he tries to send her off in the morning with a roll of cash. She tells him to keep it because she is making money. When they go to the front door to wait for the taxi, Ben is there. He wants to take Yella to the train station. At just that moment, a frightening sonic boom rings out overhead. Nonetheless, Ben persuades Yella to let him drive her to the station. He detours from the route on the pretext of showing her a place where he plans to start up a new business. As they cross a bridge, Ben says, “I love you, Yella” and turns the wheel. Yella tries to stop him, but it is too late. The car crashes through the railing, sending them into the river below.
The crash is horrific, but both Yella and Ben escape from the SUV and make it to shore, where they lay in exhaustion. Yella hears the sound of a crow, the rustle of leaves above her head on the river bank. Yella recovers first. She sees that her bags have floated to shore as well. She collects them and slips away, walking to the train station and just catching the train to her new life. A wave of fear and fatigue overcome her in the compartment as, dripping wet, she collapses into a deep sleep.
Once she arrives in Hanover, she goes to the hotel where she has taken a room until her trial period on the job is completed. The hotel manager says she has not put down a deposit. None of her credit cards work. However, when she reaches into her coat pocket, the roll of bills her father tried to press on her is there. She settles into her temporary home.
While eating dinner in the hotel, she notices the screen saver of a laptop at the table next to hers. It shows a giant wave breaking. Yella is mesmerized. The owner of the laptop, Philipp (Devid Striesow), asks her rather sarcastically if she is interested in balance sheets. Brought out of her reverie, she answers that she is. Although she has a model’s looks and carriage, Yella is actually an accountant. She says she has a job and mentions the name of the company. Philipp registers surprise, not aware that they were still hiring. He asks if Schmitt-Ott (Michael Wittenborn) hired her. Surprised that he knows this, she answers “yes.” His look becomes more rueful. “Well, good luck tomorrow,” he offers and goes up to his room.
When Yella arrives at the company, her new boss is talking on a cellphone in the parking lot. He asks her to take his keys and go to his office to retrieve a portfolio. She is unlocking his desk when a man comes in and shoos her off the premises. Schmitt-Ott, it appears, has been sacked that morning. Yella returns to the hotel and tosses her suitcase in frustration. She has left her door ajar, and Philipp enters. He learns of her problem, then says he needs someone to accompany him to a meeting the next day. He will pay her for her trouble.
Philipp is a bank negotiator who specializes in making risky loans. Although Philipp instructs Yella on some body language to use during the negotiation, he underestimates her. She is able to negotiate more effectively by actually reading and interpreting the balance sheets. Philipp and Yella turn out to be a very effective team—and a larcenous one. Philipp takes kickbacks from his clients and Yella tries to steal from him—she says to get Ben off her back. He’s still stalking her, and has shown up in Hanover. She feels guilty for not loving him anymore and for leaving him in his hour of need. Philipp understands that her guilt isn’t genuine. The pair grow closer and eventually fall in love. But one final deal creates a moral dilemma for Yella unlike any she has experienced before, and we flash back to the day of the crash.
Throughout the film, Yella appears to be experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder. She is unusually attracted to water. She hears the harsh sound of a crow, the sonic boom, and the rustle of leaves at odd moments. Ben appears to have been in her hotel room. When he chases her down the hall, she runs to Philipp and hugs him. When she turns back to look at Ben, he has vanished. She wears the same red shirt and black skirt every day, only suggesting after several days that she needs to buy some clothes. There is something questioning, bewildered, provisional about Yella.
The acting is uniformly superb in this film. Although I was a bit distracted by the resemblance that Hoss and Striesow bear to Sela Ward and Whit Stillman regular Chris Eigemann, the pair had a great chemistry that was, nevertheless, filled with a sense of dread. Schönemann scared the bejesus out of me, and that created a disconnect for me. Why did Yella keep putting herself near him, not only letting him drive her to the train station but running out into the night to look for him in Hanover? These actions set a fatalistic tone, setting the narrative on its ear in a subtle way that another director might have accomplished with skewed camera angles and odd lighting.
Puzzling, urgent, and fascinating, Yella is an amazing film, an excellent example of films of its type. But remember, if you value your life, don’t ask which type that is.