After the disappointing sidetrack of “Ghosts,” German writer-director Christian Petzold returns to top form in “Yella,” another precision-helmed, tightly wound, metaphysical thriller that confirms him as one of Germany’s finest middle-generation directors. Topped by a mesmerizing perf from Petzold favorite Nina Hoss (“Wolfsburg,” “Something to Remind Me”) as a young businesswoman unwrapping her inner demons and ambitions, pic could click on the fest and arthouse circuits in the same way as Petzold’s earlier “The State I Am In” (2001), with critical support.
On screen virtually the whole time, Yella Fichte (Hoss) is first seen arriving by train in her home town of Wittenberge, northwest of Berlin and on the banks of the River Elbe. In the street she’s accosted by — and gives short shrift to — a guy who turns out to be her ex-husband, Ben (Hinnerk Schoenemann).
After spending some time with her dad (Christian Redl) and telling him she’s landed a promising accounting job in Hanover, Yella reluctantly agrees to let Ben, whom she claims is stalking her, drive her to the airport. En route, he suddenly rails against her for dumping him when his business started to hit the skids. In a gripping sequence that quickly ramps up the emotional tension between the pair, he drives the car off a bridge and into the river, where it slowly sinks.
Just when it looks as if the main story is going to be told in flashback — especially as we’ve learned little about the main characters so far — Yella is, surprisingly, seen swimming to the shore, later joined by Ben, who collapses unconscious. She grabs her stuff, hops a train and wakes up in Hanover.
There’s an off-center quality to the succeeding reels as Yella bounces from one strange event to another. First, her boss (Michael Wittenborn) turns out to have just been fired and makes a vague sexual approach to her which she abruptly rejects. She then bumps into Philipp (Devid Striesow), a roving venture capitalist she’d earlier met who asks her to accompany him to a meeting and briefs her on the secret body language he’ll strategically use.
From Yella’s initial encounter with him, we know that Philipp is emotionally volatile beneath his coldly calculating business front. As the two form a temporary partnership that gradually warms into something else, Yella discovers that she, too, has a considerable appetite for the ruthless cut-and-thrust of modern business.
Petzold’s best pics have always had an unsettling emotional undercurrent beneath their clean, clinical direction. “Yella,” with its painterly interludes in which the rural summertime scenery takes on a threatening edge, is strongly in this line. Main character remains something of an enigma, but Hoss, dressed throughout in a eye-catching red blouse that cuts like an open wound through the black-and-grey business world in which she operates, brings a laser-like focus to the role that holds the attention.
Striesow, so good as the police chief-turned-camp commandant in WWII drama “The Counterfeiters,” has a similar penetrating gaze, making the chemistry between the two, especially during their more intimate moments, gripping. Film’s final twist, which some auds may catch earlier on, confirms that Petzold is more interested in characters’ inner desires rather than what they actually achieve.
Geography is important in the movie and not made particularly clear for non-German viewers. Yella’s journey is essentially from the former East to the former West, from a pretty but still depressed region to a city schooled in capitalist economics, with the River Elbe as a kind of border between the two. Thus, pic is also a portrait of an easterner finding her vocation but losing her soul.
Tech credits are top drawer, with pristine lensing of neat countryside and even neater buildings by Hans Fromm. In print caught, one late-on sequence in an office would benefit from color correction.