Written and directed by the German filmmaker Christian Petzold, Yella is an intriguing, suspenseful mystery with a singular clarity of vision. It is constructed like a jigsaw puzzle and each scene cleverly fits together to reveal a film that is much more than the sum of its parts. Winner of the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 2007 Berlinale, Nina Hoss delivers an excellent performance as the title character – a disillusioned woman desperate to free herself from an oppressive, unsuccessful marriage. Hoss imbues her character with a sombre, haunted quality, perfectly attuned to the subtleties of Petzold’s screenplay.
Yella attempts to flee her threatening husband, Ben (Hinnerk Schí¶nemann), and their failed business venture in East Germany for a new career and a new life in the West German city of Hanover. After a nightmare journey across the Elbe, a promised job turns out to be non-existent, the company that hired her now bankrupt. Through self-interest or sympathy, Philipp (Devid Striesow), a charismatic, ambitious businessman staying in the same hotel, offers Yella a position as his assistant. She soon becomes entangled in the cut-throat world of venture capital, negotiating deals to extend financing to start-up business ventures. But although capitalism forms the backdrop of the film, Petzold isn’t interested in making judgements about the world of finance and big business. These negotiations are really sly, duplicitous games that mirror the very nature and complexity of human relationships.
There is much more to Yella than its plot, and both colour and sound contribute subtle clues to the film’s intricacies. Petzold weaves these aesthetic elements into the fabric of the film, compelling the audience, as well as Yella, to play detective. The palette is composed of luminous, iridescent tones of green and red, with a crisp quality to the colour that evokes a heightened sense of reality. Breaking glass, the sound of rushing water, the rustling wind, bird song: all remind Yella of what she has endured, nudging her ever closer to the truth. She finds herself returning time and again to the river that divides East and West, her old life from her new.
Yella, struggling to escape from her past, is haunted every step of the way by Ben. He follows her to Hanover, stalking her, emerging from the shadows to torment her. She is rescued once again by Philipp, who appears to be everything that Yella wanted from her husband: successful, confident, yet also gentle and considerate. He uncannily guesses that she left Ben because he was a failure, that she could no longer love someone who was ruined financially. Philipp holds a mirror up to Yella, forcing her to confront her desire for a big suburban home, a green Jaguar, a perfect child. She wants what she could never have on the other side of the river, what her husband could never have given her. Ben, like impoverished East Germany, is a ghost-like figure, left behind by those desperate for a better life in the West.
Yella is an almost metaphysical exploration that, frame by frame, spins out an intriguing narrative about the human condition. Petzold meticulously probes beneath the surface of Yella’s life, revealing universal truths about love, desire, greed and regret. It’s an intelligent, well-crafted and superbly acted film that lingers in the imagination long after the final credits have rolled.