German filmmaker Christian Petzold, who studied at Berlin’s challenging dffb film school, remains a school unto himself. His films, such as Yella and Jerichow often mimic the feel and structure of a thriller, but there’s far more going on than plot mechanics. He’s interested in macro level issues of modern German identity and history in the post-Nazi, post-Cold War era, and how it intertwines with micro level interpersonal relationships. But Petzold is not interested in making films based on theories. He is keener on capturing the zeitgeist, using instinct to tell a story – and letting the historical elements come out naturally in the subtext and surroundings. His films also have a knack for mixing clinical realism with the surreal.
The Yella of the title is played by lovely actress Nina Hoss (with whom Petzold is obviously quite taken; she’s now been in three of his films). She moves from East to West Germany for a new job and to escape her past life, including her needy, sociopathic ex-husband, who, we learn at the start, is far from over her. In her new career with a new man, she soon realizes she has a surprising ability to systematize shady business dealings, giving her a way into a man’s world of work.
For much of the film, it is not entirely clear what Yella sees in the two men she is involved with, other than being attracted to their moody charisma and desiring their approval. Both males manipulate in their own ways. Both boyishly blonde, they look eerily similar, and not coincidentally to be sure. Her sociopathic ex, Ben (Hinnerk Schonemann) has an innocent look that belies his menacing nature. The second man, Philipp (Devid Striesow), is more empathetic, with a sense of humor, even if he remains in a dangerous state of emotional stuntedness. He, too, displays unsettling bursts of temper, though unlike Ben he seems to have some self-awareness of his flaws. Initially underestimating Yella, he comes to see her as a potential partner in his schemes. He teaches her the art of deception; he even has her wear glasses, not because it will help her vision but because it will hide the deceit in her eyes. But Yella’s eyes begin playing tricks on her, as she starts to see people and past events catching up with her.
Through this growing sense of discord, Petzold maintains a consistent tone and pace. Conveying Yella’s point of view, a sense of imbalance is signaled, but not overtly. In one scene she hears water, which drowns out the people talking around her. The sound is just there – but what is it? By the chilling denouement you may be even more distressed to find the truth.
There are certainly noirish leanings here, with double-crossings both large- and small-scale, but you’d be hard-pressed to call Yella a “thriller” in the traditional sense. It’s a metaphysical horror film that wraps tightly around itself.
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Petzold’s follow-up to Yella is loosely inspired by James M. Cain’s Depression-era crime novel The Postman Always Rings Twice; as with Yella it casts a noirish shadow on a romantic triangle. Benno Furmann, who bears a passing if a bit disconcerting resemblance to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, plays Thomas, a drifter who was dishonorably discharged from the German forces in Afghanistan and who returns to live in his recently deceased mother’s home. In a beautifully filmed opening sequence, we learn that Thomas also owes a fair amount of money to a gangster. When he bails out Ali (Hilmi Sözer), a Turkish-German businessman with a bit of a drinking problem, Ali offers Thomas a job as his driver and unofficial bodyguard. Completing the triangle is Ali’s abused wife Laura (Yella star Nina Hoss again) who develops a mutual attraction with Thomas, naturally leading to problems with Ali.
Ali may be arrogant and paranoid (though not without reason, it seems), a drunkard prone to violent outbursts, but many ways he’s more interesting than Thomas and Laura, thanks to both the script and Sözer’s sympathetic performance. Hoss’s Laura is certainly a more down-to-earth, world-weary but still sexy creation than Lana Turner’s Cora in the original film adaptation; Turner was memorable but always struck me as too glamorous for the role.
Petzold keeps the story fairly simple, with just enough unpredictability that one remains drawn to it, to see how things resolve. There are times — such when Thomas stalks Laura in the darkness outside her house — where the film veers toward the silly. Overall, Yella maintains a better balance between real and surreal, the deadpan and dramatic. Jerichow is not as masterfully complex work as Yella, but it’s very tightly constructed, showing in some ways Peltzold’s maturation as a filmmaker. Yella has its own haunting finale, but Jerichow offers one of the most breathtaking and shocking endings in recent memory. It reinforces my perception that Petzold is one of the world’s more promising, provocative and puzzling directors.
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