Like a drug, Yella slowly creeps on you long after the end credits roll, takes hold of your body and doesn't let go until you're convinced it was one of the best films this year's Berlinale had to offer. Wicked in the way it plays mind games with the audience, director Christian Petzold (Ghosts) has confirmed he's definitely one to watch, creating a sharp and daring film that never unveils its true colors until the very last frame. And, even then, we're still not sure how all the pieces fit together -- overcome by the greatest feeling a moviegoer could ask for: the need to watch it again ... and again.
When we first meet Yella (Nina Hoss), she's walking a familiar route between the train station and her home. However, she's afraid of something, someone -- hiding behind her long brown hair, almost uncomfortable in the clothes she wears; in the person she's become. We soon discover she's being followed (a pervert, perhaps?), but it's revealed that the man in the truck is an ex-lover, someone Yella is desperate to allude. He's anxious to speak with her -- wavers between anger and sweetness -- but Yella will have none of it; her silence telling us all we need to know: that this guy is bad news.
Turns out, the man is her ex-husband; the two broke it off after his business fell apart, and he's convinced himself (as well as attempted to convince her) that she only left him because of his failures. Yet, with his frequent bursts of anger, we know it was for other reasons ... even if she's too afraid to admit them. But good news also follows Yella home -- she's received a job offer in another town, one that will force her to temporarily move while she goes through the six-week trial phase. As she packs her things and says goodbye to her father, Yella's ex-husband once again shows up; this time, he pleads with Yella to take her to the train station. Unfortunately, she briefly surrenders and, while driving across a small bridge halfway between her home and the station, he whispers "I love you, Yella," hops the divider and sends the car crashing into the water below.
Miraculously, after a minute or so underneath the water, they both survive ... and swim up to shore before passing out beside one another. As Yella begins to shake off her daze, she spots her bags floating nearby. A quick glance to make sure he's not awake, Yella grabs her stuff and flees. As luck would have it, she just barely makes her scheduled train; clothes ruined, hair drenched, she safely heads out of town. Once checked into her temporary home, Yella -- transfixed on a nearby laptop's wave-like screen saver -- meets a business man in the lounge downstairs; the laptop's owner, Philipp (Devid Striesow). From there on, things get a bit strange: Turns out, the man who hired Yella for her new job was recently fired. In so many words, he promises Yella another job if she'll sleep with him -- but she'll have none of that (and seems to exit his taxi while it's still moving). Back at the hotel, she meets up with Philipp again -- who we learn is a venture capitalist -- where he offers her a one-time gig as his assistant/accountant on a business transaction. That one-time gig turns into another, which leads to a brief romance and an opportunity to get involved with a new business Philipp wants to start up.
The parallels between Yella's ex-husband and Philipp become more clear as the story progresses; first, he's a healthier-looking version of her ex (who still randomly stalks Yella throughout, but only vaguely approaches her), and, unlike her ex, Philipp is on the verge of a new beginning, instead of trying to pick up the pieces of a failed business. It's almost as if she's gone back in time -- back to a time when she first fell in love, first took a chance on a man she really believed was going places. It's almost as if we're watching how Yella first met her ex-husband, only it's a different man in a different time. Director Christian Petzold continues to mess with his audience up until the big reveal at the end, and only then do things finally make sense ... somewhat.
The script, the acting (Nina Hoss won best actress for her role, and it's easy to see why) and the directing are all flawless; Petzold shoots his characters from a distance -- except during pic's most intense scenes -- in order to let the film breathe as we observe the beauty (yes, beauty) of business. Afterward, a few of us joked that if the film was remade in America, it would be called M. Night Shyamalan's Yella. Here's hoping Petzold crosses the pond successfully before our dreadful nightmares become a reality.