I Am Curious, Yella: German Indie Puts Us on Tightrope

YELLA
Running Time 89 minutes
Written and directed by Christian Petzold
Starring Nina Hoss, David Striesow, Hinnerk Schöenmann

Christian Petzold’s Yella, from his own screenplay (in German with English subtitles), tells the haunting story of a mood-driven woman named Yella (Nina Hoss) who decides one day to leave her loser husband, Ben (Hinnerk Schöenmann), and their home in a small town in the former East Germany for a new career and life in the West. Her specialty is reading balance sheets with an uncanny perceptiveness, a talent that proves invaluable in business negotiations.

She attracts the attention of a handsome business executive named Philipp (David Striesow), and after several business confabs at which she demonstrates her corporate skills and killer instincts, Yella and Philipp become lovers. Yet, all the while there is an ominous foreboding of doom in Yella’s otherwise triumphant adaptation to the capitalist ethos. I can’t tell you much more about this strange film without giving away its trick plot. Suffice it to say that Ms. Hoss provides a performance that is as phenomenal as any I have ever encountered. Yet, she has been appearing and reportedly excelling in German movies, stage plays and television productions since at least 1996, and I have never, ever seen her perform in any medium. This suggests the still uncertain vagaries of foreign film distribution in America.

As it happens, Yella premiered at the 2007 Berlin International Film Festival, where its star received the Silver Bear Prize for Best Actress. It was also selected as Best Picture by the German Film Critics Association in 2008, and is the recipient of four 2008 Lola Award nominations (Germany’s Academy Awards) in the categories of Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Cinematography.

Right now, the long neglected German cinema seems to be experiencing something of a golden age, with such startling works as The Lives of Others, The Counterfeiters, Four Minutes and, now, Yella. One can only hope that we will have the opportunity to see a larger proportion of German productions in the future.

Seldom before have I ever been so absorbed in a female character on the screen as I was with Ms. Hoss’s Yella, as she kept trying to escape a past that was drawing her back inexorably. It was only after the shock ending that I could fully appreciate the subtleties and nuances of her portrayal. It is possible, of course, that Yella won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. As with any independent film these days, there is a certain vagueness and indistinctness in the often slightly menacing mise-en-scène. But the satiric focus of the negotiations is always sharp and clear. Suddenly, Yella’s character, which often seems to be merely drifting, comes to life with a vengeance. Eventually, Yella displays a flair for intrigue that suggests that she has mastered the cruel disciplines of the most ruthless forms of capitalism. Yet the fear is also always present even in the midst of success.

In his comments on the film and its heroine, the director confirms the intentionality of his effects: “I like characters who want to bring something together, who have a plan. I like their work on the plan, the scheme, but also their failures. Yella is both a very modern and very old-fashioned young woman. She wants to go out into the flexible and shifting world, but she also wants to stay home. While we were making the film, we often thought about those American ballads that often convey this idea, being in movement, being on the road, but yet always singing and telling stories about home. This is why the David Ackles song ‘The Road to Cairo’ is heard in the film. This inner conflict, Yella has it too. A state of suspension: enduring this is what Yella has to deal with.”

Ultimately, Yella is to be commended for not preaching sermons on the inadequacy and even malignancy of our social and political institutions. Instead, it suggests that we are all walking on a tightrope to reach an illusory other side, but with oblivion lurking at every step. Our plight is almost comical, but not quite. In any event, Yella is a film to be seen and savored, and Ms. Hoss serves up a delicious feast to a discriminating palate.

I Am Curious, Yella: German Indie Puts Us on Tightrope