Yella (Nina Hoss) is a young woman caught between an uncertain future and a past which won’t go away. As her dilemma unfolds, award-winning director Christian Petzold engages the audience in a world of claustrophobic menace and sudden events, underscored by subtle performances and a nostalgic musical soundtrack. A familiar theme is given an unusual treatment with a startling twist.
We are intrigued from the start by close-up shots of a bedraggled young woman changing her clothes in a cramped train compartment. This atmosphere of threatened intimacy continues, in hotel rooms with doors left ajar, in whispered conversations and car interiors with edgy drivers. Yella lives in a semi-urban world that is both under-populated and strangely muffled, a dull milieu punctuated by rustling leaves, rushing water and sudden bird calls. That they appear to exist as much inside Yella’s head as out there in the environment adds to the sense of danger.
A series of short flashback scenes show Yella leaving her provincial home in East Germany for a new job in the Western city of Hanover. An accountant, she helped her ex-husband Ben (Hinnerk Schönemann) run his business until the marriage ran into difficulties. She is fearful when he appears on a deserted street and later reluctantly accepts his offer of a lift to the station. When Ben flies into a rage and drives the car into a river, Yella escapes and catches the train after all – a return to the opening shots of the film. The river plunge is evidently a kind of baptism for Yella, and the start of her new life.
Unfortunately, all isn’t quite so simple. The new job does not exist, although Yella is fooled just long enough to be useful to the man who interviewed her. Deeply disappointed, she is rescued by handsome businessman Philipp (Devid Striesow) and invited into the world of high-finance negotiation where, as she learns, truth is “a matter of perspective”. Philipp takes a rake-off when negotiating with clients for the equity company which employs him and Yella is drawn into his cleverly executed scams when she discovers her own talent for negotiating. She is also pleased by Philipp’s approval and acceptance of her as an equal.
The new world is otherwise impersonal, from her featureless room in an under-occupied hotel to a series of high-rise offices where she and Philipp meet grey-suited clients. Between commercial centers, they drive along roads crossing dreary scrubland. When she tries to drop in on her old home, Philipp refuses, and in an outburst recalling Ben’s earlier fit of temper, makes it clear he is not about to play “happy families”.
Yella’s actions are too ambiguous for her to be a mere victim of circumstances. Not only is she disturbed by events of the past for which she may have been responsible, she walks alone down backstreets and pursues suspected stalkers into ill-lit locations as if courting disaster. In relationship with the enigmatic and morally questionable Philipp, she notices visual motifs from the past – a couple outside a house, a type of car or a way of peeling an orange that, along with sounds, suggest a cycle of recurring events. She is amused when Philipp demonstrates the tricks of the negotiating trade to her, but she says nothing about his ripping off his employers and finally achieves a coup that is both unexpected and astounding.
There is nothing morally uplifting about this portrait of the world of financial dealings, and some may find it a depressing and even misogynistic portrayal. That said, it makes for compelling viewing, as the director revisits themes he has already explored in the critically acclaimed Ghosts (Gespenster) (2005). The impact of the final scenes is startling and thought-provoking, raising profound moral questions about our relationship with the past and its role in the present.
© 2007 Sheila Cornelius. All rights reserved.
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