After hearing a lot about the intensity of German film, Yella, as it toured around the festival circuit, and after it finally got a very limited commercial release this weekend in the United States (A British, R2 PAL DVD has been around since January for those inclined not to wait for a wider release which likely will not be happening). The film is one of those icily precise modern thrillers in the same vein as Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Jonathan Glazer’s Birth, Denis Dercourt’s The Page Turner or Michael Haneke’s Caché. Yes, Yella is that good.
*Possible SPOILERS follow after the Jump*
Gripping and unsettling, even as it gives its twist away in the first reel for anyone who may have seen Carnival of Souls, or favours the Twilight Zone, the obvious source templates used by director Christian Petzold. However, the twist is besides the point, serving as a double underscore to the films outlook of global commerce in a modern Germany.
The film opens with Yella (Nina Hoss who gives a tightly-wound performance which won her several awards in Germany) leaving her small town in sleepy rural eastern Germany for a big aviation research firm in glass and concrete urban western Germany. She is leaving for a fresh start after a business start-up gone horribly wrong with her husband (him CEO, her accountant) has soured their relationship to the point of him stalking her around town while she desperately tries to cut all ties. As a gesture to do just that, she lets him drive her to the train-station and spend a few last moments together which he exploits by driving his SUV off of a bridge into Owl Creek.
Somehow, Yella manages to swim out of the sinking vehicle, collect her soggy wet belongings and just make the train out of her old life. She arrives to the aviation firm which has just escorted her new boss (and her potential employment) off the premises, but luckily in the hotel where she is staying she meets a venture capital banker in need of an accountant. It is not long before she is thrust into the high pressure, high chicanery world of multi-million dollar loans for business with bad credit or risky ideas. While the sparse, glassy conference rooms with large tables piled with half-full plastic water bottles are framed and shot as soul-crushing negative space, Yella finds herself quite competent to the double dealings and comfortable with her new business partner. Guilt from fleeing her marriage, and stress from the near-death experience has her hallucinating ghosts and a collection of sounds, while she develops a curious interest in a house in the city where a man, wife and young child live. These images and sounds are not so much a clue to the structural mystery of the movie, but more of a way to constantly keep the viewer on edge. It’s effective watching Yella for the first time, feels like watching a much loved thriller the second or third time, where the overall plot is less important the emotional experience. No small feat for a film that keeps nearly all emotions on very slow-burn Rage, despondence, passion, fear all come in small measured bursts, continually teasing interest in a story that is literally going nowhere (I mean that as high praise!).
It is quite clear by the midway point that this is not Oliver Stone’s vulgar American greed-fest Wall Street, but more along the lines of Olivier Assayas’ silky continental (and criminally underseen) Demon Lover. Yet the specific allegory of modern German filtered through a distinct cinematic sensibility makes it an interesting fusion of genre styles and a pretty compelling experience of a type which is sadly not encountered very much outside of the festival circuit.