German filmmaker Christian Petzold explores capitalism through genre
Americans could be forgiven for thinking that German movies are all about the legacy of Nazism. Apart from Fatih Akin's work, the kind of German cinema distributed in the United States is generally devoted to gazing backward rather than engaging directly with the modern world. That makes the work of the "Berlin school," a group of filmmakers who've emerged since the late '90s, so refreshing. The New German Cinema explosion of the '70s has been reduced by now to a handful of names, but the Berlin school doesn't draw on Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, or Wim Wenders. (That said, Yella takes its name from an actress in Wenders' Alice in the Cities.) Instead, it takes inspiration from politically minded documentarian Harun Farocki. Indeed, Farocki's 2004 Nothing Ventured is featured as a bonus on the DVD for director Christian Petzold's Yella--the most widely distributed product of the Berlin school so far, making its way to an American DVD release after a brief 2008 theatrical run.
Yella is named after its heroine, Yella Fichte (Nina Hoss). As it begins, she's about to leave her hometown in former East Germany for a job in the West. She accepts a ride from her estranged husband Ben (Hinnerk Schönemann), who quickly becomes agitated. On a bridge, he deliberately drives his car into a river. Yella survives the wreck and, although thoroughly soaked, makes her train to Hanover. Venture capitalist Philipp (Devid Striesow) takes her under his wing and she blossoms into his partner in business and love. She has strange spells, however, in which she's haunted by the sound of running water and squawking birds. Ben has apparently recovered from the accident well enough to be able to stalk her and break into her hotel room.
Yella establishes an eerie atmosphere, but at the same time it proceeds briskly. Petzold's sensibility combines American genre cinema with European art film, like a synthesis of M. Night Shyamalan and Michael Haneke. The director obviously admires the energy of the thriller, but he brings a political dimension to it that's not fully apparent until Yella's end.
The movie is filled with images of water: When Yella dines at a restaurant, she sees a surfer engulfed by a giant wave on a TV monitor; at a meeting, she knocks over a glass of water. The movie raises questions about whether or not she's dreaming certain events, and some of them are completely banal. After she puts trash in a bin, Petzold cuts to the image of Yella sleeping as her alarm goes off. Others have more import. Petzold also cuts to a sleeping Yella after she meets Philipp for the first time.
Yella is no simplistic anti-corporate tract. Even as it shows unethical practices in the business world, it manages to convey the empowering appeal this milieu has for Yella. For all the theft and con artistry Yella depicts, it's easy to imagine a young woman watching it and imagining herself succeeding in finance in Yella's place.
Her hotel room is decorated with a pseudo-Mondrian grid-like painting, and Petzold's framing takes its cue from this artwork. His shots are often bisected by doors and pillars. The movie's sensibility suggests another German artist, photographer Andreas Gursky, with a similar tendency to portray capitalism with ambivalence.
Stating which American genre movies Yella draws from would be a spoiler. Like Shyamalan, Petzold has a fondness for plot twists. If alert, you should be able to guess this one long before the eventual reveal. Unfortunately, placing so much of its narrative weight on the twist warps Yella, making it a bit too blunt and glossing over the holes and question marks in its plot. In the end, it slams down hard on Yella's dreams of success in the business world. Her journey begs for an allegorical interpretation: She starts out in the middle of nowhere and gradually heads west, all the while dogged by a past that she can't escape. Yella suggests that West and East Germany remain divided, and that the empowerment of the Eastern half is an illusion.
Even if Petzold borrows from other movies, his sensibility remains unique. As critic Chris Darke observed, he combines the materialistic with the metaphysical. Yella makes corporate culture look profoundly weird, not just corrupt. And you can sense that Petzold's fantasies are rooted in reality--his depiction of the psychological tricks Philipp relies on in negotiations is obviously well-researched--but they remain fanciful. Yella depicts modernity by turning Alice away from Wonderland and toward a position in venture capital.