Christian Petzold, proud member of the “Berlin School” of young German filmmaking, won the Silver Bear at last year’s Berlinale with the moody tale of a rootless woman who joins forces with a roving venture capitalist. Yella is a richly textured allegory of lust, greed, loneliness, and desire set in the rural East of Germany. It also features a mesmerizing lead performance by Nina Hoss (also awarded with a Silver Bear) and the most obvious, superfluous, and all-around maddening trick ending in memory.
“Who dares to dream in the times of venture capital?” is the film’s strangely juxtaposed tagline, combining the surreal pull of its dreamlike surface with the hard-nosed business sense evidenced by Phillip (Devid Striesow). The young business man takes Yella (Nina Hoss) to negotiations in sterile boardrooms where she shows that she “likes financial statements” and can help him strong-arm his adversaries. Soon, they roam office parks and out-of-the-way motels together, scamming percentages and evading Yella’s bankrupt ex-husband Ben (Hinnerk Schönemann).
Outside of the office, sober calculations give way to the precisely observed countryside, full of peculiar colors and an irresistible slipstream of pregnant details: red garbage bags that line the corridors of an empty train car, the sonic boom that punctuates a scene otherwise marked by awkward silences. The sad vultures of global capitalism move through a charged world in which even the rustling of wind in the trees seems to bear a hidden meaning. With dazzling intensity, Nina Hoss, a rising German star with an angular face and haunted eyes, holds the film together and propels it forward. If Yella was two minutes shorter, Petzold would have made a film worth raving about.
But then there’s that ending. Not satisfied with the unique place and characters he created, Petzold and co-writer Simone Baer cap Yella with a twist that is as unnecessary as it is obvious. I am tempted to give it away just to free you from the nagging suspicions that plagued my experience, but the film itself hints so strongly at its much-copied 19th century literary antecedents (“Peyton Farquhar” is all I’ll say) that you’ll probably see what’s coming anyway. As a fellow German, I know that it’s in the national character to over-explain and literalize, but I wish Petzold had dared to leave some mystery. Yella would have been no less poignant and infinitely more original.
Yella is currently playing in Germany; the film does not yet have a U.S. release date yet.
Yella. Christian Petzold, 2007. ***