Directed by Christian Petzold
Yella takes place in some sort of limbo, much like Petzold’s most recent film, Transit. These characters exist just outside of any recognizable time and place, and though there are signs indicating the existence of the real, recognizable world in Yella, our main character never feels a part of it.
Yella lives in a small town with her father and apparently spends much of her time trying to avoid her ex-husband, Ben, who stalks her around every corner. He accuses her of dumping him just because he has gone broke, but his general instability suggests there’s more to it than that.
When she leaves for a job two hours away Ben will offer to drive her to the train station. She agrees, tepidly, and when he asks what time her train leaves he figures out where she’s headed to. After yet another pitiful attempt on his part to convince her to stay with him, which she rebuffs, he tells her he loves her and drives off a bridge into the river below.
Yella will swim her way to shore and still make it in time to board the train. Whether or not she has, in fact, survived this crash will become a perfectly valid question over the remainder of the film, as she hears strange noises that no one else can. And yet, the film isn’t simply about that question of where and when she is.
Yella will learn that she was hired by a man who’s not even allowed into his office, and later he makes a not so subtle proposition to her. At the hotel she’s staying at (another recurring motif in Petzold’s films it seems) she meets Philipp, who happens to look a lot like her ex-husband Ben. It also happens that Ben has followed her to the new town and even managed to get into her hotel room when she’s not there.
When Philipp learns that Yella has some experience with accounting, he takes her along to a series of business negotiations at which she quickly proves her worth. Instead of sitting by in silence, as he had planned, she jumps in and dictates the meeting, pointing out flaws and deceit which help their case.
As this goes on they get closer, bonding on multiple levels. He seems to represent some kind of break from her alternately monotonous and frightening existence. She interacts with only men throughout the entire film, and outside of her father they all hound her like, well like predators.
Philipp is the only one who treats her as an equal, and it seems it helps that he happens to carve up an orange with the same precision as her father, the only other man in her life to give her any kindness. Later he will insist to her that he doesn’t want any kind of the conventional romance and suburban living that most relationships lead to. You get the impression that he is her only chance at any kind of freedom, even if the events of the film direct them down a few not so legal pathways.
The film reminded me of Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970), as well to some degree as Kelly Reichardt’s River of Grass (1994). The characters in those films are women who are restricted and looking for a way out. In the latter there is a romantic freedom to her sudden Bonnie & Clyde existence, and while that same criminal activity in the former isn’t quite so romantic, it does feel inevitable. The characters live in a society that has shackled them, and so any kind of freedom is worth it, whether it’s literal freedom or just in your mind.
Yella is such a silent, stoic character. Her eyes do most of the acting, and she uses silence to convey all sorts of emotion, from fear to affection to suspicion. She’s on guard from the very first moment of the film, as she hurriedly walks away from her stalking ex-husband, and she rarely has a moment to ease up.
Petzold’s film does such an amazing job at conveying tone. It’s eerie and discomforting even if it’s not outright scary. Yella always feels like she’s in some kind of danger, but more than that the male characters outside of Philipp and her father are just kind of disturbing. They expect things from and for her without ever giving her a chance to prove them wrong.
I’m not sure how many people have seen this film, will read this or whether or not it matters what I say about the ending. But here goes.
We return to the scene of the car crash and are led to believe that Yella and Ben each died in the crash. This plot framing is taken from Carnival of Souls, an old B-horror film in which a woman appears to have survived a car wreck only to be haunted by a weird spirit until we learn that she was dead all along. I guess it’s Jacob’s Ladder too.
And that storyline feels simplistic, especially in Yella. It doesn’t really explain anything, and without the “twist” ending the film doesn’t have a logical conclusion. She works with Philipp to make some more money, and she goes out of her way to try and coerce one man into paying her a large sum of money. Then she has a vision of him dead and swollen with water, so she runs back to his home and finds him unresponsive in the shallows of a lake, having committed suicide.
So the implication is that she got herself in too deep with Philipp’s slightly illegal activity, showed that she is too adept at it, and she got a man killed. Then she feels intense remorse, and suddenly we return to the scene of what was supposed to be her own death.
The first reading here would seem to be that she was dead all along, but I don’t quite see it that way. When Ben first drives them off the bridge she yells at him and fights for control of the steering wheel. In the end as we suddenly flash back to this moment, Yella calmly looks at him, knowing what he’s about to do before perhaps even he does. Then he turns to go right off the bridge, and she hardly bats an eye.
How the rules of this world work, I don’t entirely know, but it sure as hell seems like she herself returned to this moment and chose to die, likely as penance for getting another man killed.
It’s a sad story that is all the more sad if she indeed chose to die. She is this abused character who is put in a position to blossom, only she goes a step too far and feels so guilty about it that she prefers to fade into oblivion. It says to me that she doesn’t think she deserves a second chance or any opportunity at happiness, and right before the realization that the man had drowned himself she did experience her most tender moment in the film.
There’s a moment earlier in the film in which Philipp correctly guesses why she feels so guilty about her ex-husband (and wanted to send him money). It’s because Ben accused her of dumping him only when he went broke, and she thinks he’s right. Philipp calls bullshit on that front, but it’s clear Yella holds onto this guilt, that she has wronged Ben by leaving him, no matter how abusive he is.
So it’s easy to see how this guilt would take hold of her after she thinks she has harmed another man, driven him to suicide. She’s a character who is tortured enough as it is but insists upon torturing herself a little bit more.
And so the world of the film reflects how hard she is on herself. It’s a sense of limbo that you feel long before anything starts getting too weird. Streets are empty and yet there is always someone there stalking her. It’s a horror film that borders at times on melodrama but is shot in such a quiet way as to fool you into thinking it’s a documentary.
Up Next: State and Main (2000), Back to the Future Part II (1989), Presumed Innocent (1990)