Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Lost souls

Some time ago Cineaste received a fine interview with writer-director Christian Petzold, which will soon be featured on our website. The article is timed to coincide with Friday's release of his fourth feature, Yella, via Cinema Guild. Given the quick decimation of foreign-language arthouse releases, even award-winning ones like Yella, see it lickety-split if you can; its lead performance, in particular, will linger by the time the piece makes it to pixels.

Subtitles give audiences pause, and I must say if I'm not thoroughly engaged with a film my aging eyes tend to droop as a barrage of words comes at me from the screen. No such problems with Yella. For one thing, it's not that talky; the business-like characters play it close to the vest as they jockey for advantage. For another, Petzold admires American genre pictures, and Yella is essentially his version of Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls, played straight. It's a nightmare of naturalism, reprising key moments from its source in a new, capitalistic context.

Yella is portrayed by Nina Hoss, who won the Silver Bear at the 2007 Berlin International Film Festival for her anxious-under-the-surface performance. The plot straddles what used to be called the two Germanys, now reconciled but still divided by class and economic opportunity. Yella lives in a backwater East German town, but is planning her exit, which seems to become more permanent than planned when ex-husband Ben (Hinnerk Schonemann) reenters the scene. The emotionally disturbed Ben takes Yella on a car ride that ends with a plunge into the Elbe River, which only Yella survives. Restoring her equilibrium after her ordeal is a smooth-operating venture capitalist, Philipp (David Striesow), who hires her as his aide-de-camp in his ventures (the actor played the commandant in The Counterfeiters). Yella adjusts to a new routine in the wealthier environs of the former West Germany, and she and Philipp, who reminds her of her ex, strike up a more intimate sort of partnership. But there is a price to be paid, and what appears to be Ben's ghost materializes to exact it.

The horror movie elements give the picture a little jolt, though Yella is not a horror movie. [Nor is it strictly speaking a road movie, though it is a bit of that kind of film, too, punctuated by David Ackles' song "The Road to Cairo."] The quasi-thriller is about the difficulty of transitioning from one life to another, from the homey poverty of the ghost towns of the East to the colder comforts of the status-obsessed West. A romanticized portrait it is not: Both societies have their enticements and disadvantages, which keep Yella in a state not unlike suspended animation, unable to find her place. [Trains and cars, and the holding patterns they impose, are a motif.] When Yella accompanies Philipp on his rounds much of the film is about negotiation, and Hoss excels at listening, as she goes from pupil to peer under his tutelage. In asserting herself, what she can't shut out is her former life. Arriving is the payoff of travel, but in Yella the journey is complicated by conflicting emotions, and the destination a mystery.

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