“I want you to love me again”
There’s a glimmer of hope in Yella Fichte’s (Nina Hoss) eye when things finally seem to be going in the right direction. She’s earned a new job starting the day after tomorrow, one that should fill her empty bank account and lead her towards prosperity. But before she can enjoy the good news, she must first endure that which she yearns to escape. This comes in the form of Ben (Hinnerk Schönemann), a man putting a chill down her spine with an unpredictable air of aggression. No exposition is given beyond demeanor, their relationship drawn by a palpable fear that thankfully doesn’t escalate … yet. The morning’s train ride to Hanover couldn’t happen sooner, a fresh start waits to break free from poverty and the chains of her past.
So Christian Petzold‘s Yella opens with promise tempered by potential tragedy. Here she is moving forward and there Ben is looking to drag her back. All the filmmaker gives us are visual cues steeped in emotion so we become aware of the dangers and dreams his lead faces. We understand her plight, recognize the weight of the opportunity presented to her, and grow anxious by the fact this unhinged man remains hovering around her orbit despite her knowing the damage he can wreak. Who is he that she can possess such revulsion and sympathy simultaneously? What did she do to make her guilty enough to let him stay so close? Her future might be just a few hours away, but it only takes an instant to lose everything.
And it’s in that instant that her world changes—a car accident sending them both into the water over a bridge. It’s the result of her unknown guilt that she accepts his ride and perhaps an act of karma that doing so gets her thrown into a life or death situation. Thankfully they survive, but at what cost? Her hope is gone, replaced by a heavy uncertainty. Everything that seemed assured isn’t whether a hotel stay during her trial run to the job itself and Ben escalates his stalking while his anger turns violent. It’s as though she wasn’t meant to leave home and yet it’s impossible to return. The lone bright spot Yella has is Philipp (Devid Striesow), a stranger uniquely positioned to provide everything she seeks.
He’s the one giving her a chance at the life she craves. He doesn’t look at her with lecherous expectation like Ben or the man who was supposed to be her boss (Michael Wittenborn‘s Dr. Schmidt-Ott). For once she’s appreciated for her mind, the work she does with Philipp creating an unstoppable team (that provides loans to high-risk companies in order to pocket a large percentage in commission). Yet each step towards happiness finds itself invaded by chaos. Ben becomes a looming figure from which she cannot escape, their interactions growing worse with each subsequent encounter. She’s suddenly caught in a state of purgatorial flux, the past gripping one hand and the future the other. Rather than being able to choose one, they’re both ripping her apart.
To say much more means moving into spoiler territory, something I’m not certain you can avoid in order to express how great Petzold’s film is. The simple fact that it plays as an uncredited remake of Herk Harvey‘s Carnival of Souls is a spoiler itself, but one you must know to see how the German has taken that classic’s effective blueprint and made it more palatable for a cinema-loving public seeking highbrow drama as opposed to horror-tinged thrills. Yella‘s mystery man may not be as memorably scary in aesthetics, but he’s more formidable in authenticity. Ben is soon revealed as someone Yella has wronged for selfish reasons, his increasing volatility closely linked to her increasing shame. She lets him haunt her because she feels it’s deserved.
Everything is therefore metaphorical symbol as well as literal plotting. Ben is her psychological demon as much as physical predator. Philipp is her knight in shining armor at a time when she’s in desperate need for one, but also a uniquely positioned character to give Yella a second chance at love’s complexities by proving to be more like Ben than we may initially assume. We start to look at what Petzold has created both on its surface and beneath as a surreally apt dream full of coincidences that force his lead to confront her regrets and possibly learn from those past mistakes to be better. Nothing that happens is unimportant—each detail meticulously presented to be remembered when it arrives again later with additional importance via altered context.
And above this level of duality come aural eccentricities like water flowing and a slow rumble distorting Yella’s perception. They arrive in moments of high stress, sometimes triggering her to change course and do what she wants rather than what she’s told and other times culminating in a deafening pop that almost resets the scene as though the director yelled “Back to original positions!” There does start to be a layer of artificiality permeating the seemingly reality-based progressions, this notion that Yella is trapped in a no man’s land of transportation and settings defined by their impermanence. Every attempt to go back is met with a reason to stay put. Every desire to move forward ignites a fresh revelation that her hopes have been dashed with another dead-end.
Like in all Petzold films, the performances prove crucial to our acceptance of what’s happening even as the actions on-screen force us to question everything. As the dynamic between Yella and Ben is revealed, we can understand why she provides him such empathy despite his transgressions. As each fateful discovery that information or people from earlier are perfectly necessary to traverse events in the present begs for us to cry foul, we see the strain and determination in Hoss’ face to know it’s merely the good luck off-setting the steady stream of bad that follows her out of the water. Both Schönemann and Striesow have the potential for rage and compassion, each coming out-of-nowhere as though intentional guides and blockades depending on her potential for progress or regress.
We’re shown a portrait of a woman’s psyche—someone with nothing to be guilty about objectively but everything subjectively. There’s this constant projection of social normalcy and hierarchy, this desire by others to dictate her path through preconceptions or their personal faults rather than allow her to flourish on her own. And Yella takes them to heart, transforming external forces into internal ones while evolving complicated examples of self-sabotage into God’s will. Our hope is to find happiness, a path that will make everything difficult before it worth the spoils ahead. But can she live with what she’s done to escape? Can she pretend she wasn’t the cause of painful suffering to achieve her freedom? Perhaps happiness is an illusion. Or even worse: perhaps she doesn’t deserve it.