Movie Review by Willard Manus
Christian Petzold is considered one of the leading directors of New German cinema. Since making his first feature in 2001 (The State I'm In), he has gone on to win many awards in Europe, including three best-film prizes from the German Film Critics Association, including one for YELLA in 2007. Now YELLA has been released in L.A. in a limited run that I fear will be very limited.
The problem lies in the film's conception, not execution. Petzold shows that he can tell a story in a highly visual and effective fashion, keeping things moving at a nimble pace. His dialogue is crisp and understated; he doesn't over-explain things and is skilful at creating a mood of suspense tinged with mystery. He also is adept at portraying the underbelly of the modern business world with its crooked business deals being put together by Armani-clad corporate executives and lawyers in the confines of sleek, high-rise boardrooms.
Petzold was helped in that regard by his co-writer, Harun Farocki, whose 2004 documentary Not Without Risk was an expose of the Enron-like scandals that have rocked Germany in recent years. Farocki's inside knowledge enabled Petzold to write convincingly about the racketeers in YELLA, who are anything but cliche bad guys. On the contrary, they come off as charming, low-key and polite--and are all the more dangerous and ruthless for it.
Petzold also coaxes good work out of Nina Hoss, who plays the eponymous Yella, a young woman fleeing Ben, her violent and obsessed husband (David Streisow), who keeps stalking her, even after having been dumped unceremoniously. Yella is an accountant and has a nose for suspect balance sheets, which appeals greatly to Philipp, the business "negotiator" she teams up with while on the run from Ben. Phillipp's m.o. is to get the goods on con-artist businessmen and then blackmail them for a piece of the action.
Yella and Philipp soon enter into a love affair which Petzold is unable to make believable, if only because they are such cold, calculating characters with no sex appeal whatsoever. Petzold also runs into severe script problems, most of them having to do with Yella's basic lack of commonsense--she keeps leaving her hotel door open, making it easy for Ben to intrude and beat her up.
More major--and fatal, really--is the problem with YELLA'S concept. To give it away would be unfair, so I'll just settle for this generality. What Petzold does in YELLA is to take a realistic and effective story and flip it suddenly, turning it into an exercise in postmodern irony or fantasy. He thereby cheats himself and the audience, which is why YELLA will soon be going straight to DVD hella.