Yella”, a German film opening at the Cinema Village Theater in New York on May 16th, is marred by a completely unsatisfying conclusion but up until that point it is first-rate. At the end of this review, I will discuss that conclusion but preface it by a subheading of Spoiler just to make sure that you are warned in advance.
Director Christian Petzold, whose work I am not familiar with, describes his film in the press notes as follows:
I often work with characters who have been presumptuous, who have wanted a little too much and who are now on the outside, shut out, no longer belonging. Their plans and intrigues, and their work towards getting back in again, into life, into society, into love … The East [of Germany] is a region that can no longer feed its inhabitants in dignity. People are forced to leave there, but walking away is the hard part. The world they leave behind, the towns and villages which have been emptied, ghost towns. Someone who has come from a ghost town like this and who wants to enter into life, but carries around the ghostly with them, that is what Yella is all about.
Yella (Nina Hoss, a long-time collaborator with Petzold) is the name of a thirty-something woman who is living in a small town in former East Germany. She has just broken up with her husband Ben (Hinnerk Schönemann) and has taken a job as an accountant in Hamburg. Although she fears him, she decides to accept a ride with him to the local train station. As soon as she sits down in the front seat of the car, he begins to assail her verbally. It is obvious that he is disturbed. When she insists that he stop the car and release her, he ignores her request and continues with his verbal assault which is escalating to even higher levels.
When they are crossing a bridge over the Elbe River, Ben swerves the car into the railings and they crash into the river below. A moment or two later, they both emerge from the river soaking wet but seemingly unscathed. Yella collects her luggage, which is floating on the river bank, and continues on her way leaving an exhausted Ben at the river bank. She makes her way to the train station and arrives at Hamburg later that day.
After her first job falls through, Yella hooks up with an utterly soulless and ambitious private investor named Philipp (Devid Striesow) who she accompanies to meetings with corporate executives. Since Philipp is trying to figure out how to get them to accept lower bids for their assets than they seek, Yella is the perfect accomplice. Her ability to read balance sheets allows her to put the executives on the spot. When one of them claims that their network systems is worth 80 thousand Euros, she reminds them that they bought it at an auction of a bankrupt company and that it is only worth 2 thousand.
Philipp’s admiration for Yella’s cunning and hers for his ruthlessness soon kindles a romantic relationship. They drive around Germany going from one meeting to another in super-modern but sterile looking office buildings and spend nights at equally super-modern and sterile looking motels. Their conversation revolves entirely around their next confrontation with hostile businessmen who they are trying to con.
When the conversation is not about money, it is about Ben who has recovered from his plunge in the Elbe and has begun to stalk Yella in Hamburg. At one point he shows up in her hotel room and beats her. Your sympathy is with Yella, even though she is involved with shady financial dealings. Mostly, you understand that she is trapped in a world that she did not create. As such, she is a perfect symbol of the fate of all East Germans, no matter their social class.
Up until the last minute or two of the film, you find yourself riveted by Petzold’s acrid social commentary as well as some inexplicably eerie touches. For example, when Ben pursues Yella down a hotel hallway, she ends up at Philipp’s door, which she pounds on for help. As soon as Philipp opens the door, Yella discovers that Ben has mysteriously disappeared.
Despite these inexplicably eerie plot twists, “Yella” is content to focus on the anomie of European corporate life, demonstrating an obvious affinity with the work of French director Laurent Cantet, whose “Human Resources” and “Time Out” deals with similar issues, particularly “Time Out”, which also featured a corrupt businessman living on the edge.
Out of the blue, as Yella and Philipp are en route to their next showdown with corporate executives, the scene shifts abruptly to the bridge of the opening scene. Ben and Yella’s car is being lifted from the waters by a tow-truck under the watchful eyes of cops, their lifeless bodies soon to follow. In other words, we have been watching a ghost story all along. None of the meetings occurred, nor did the confrontations with Ben and the soulless romance with Philippe.
I hate it when screenwriters use this kind of cop-out. Variations include waking up from a dream, with the main character rubbing his eyes. “Yella” might have been more satisfying if there had been some resolution between the major characters, even if it had occurred as some kind of ghost story. But the film ends anti-climactically in keeping with an unfortunate post-modernist sensibility still strong in the film industry apparently.