In Jean-Luc Godard's 1991 masterpiece "Germany Year 90 Nine Zero," shot right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a befogged Eddie Constantine, reprising his role as Lemmy Caution, asks for directions "to the West." Hemmed in by a labyrinth of signs and dead ends, he winds up back in a hotel room that echoes the one he occupied in "Alphaville" (1965). Back to the beginning. His final word sums it up: "Bastards!"
Nearly two decades later, the Wall is a childhood memory for 20-something Yella Fichte (Nina Hoss). There is no west for Yella to search for anymore in a unified Germany; the west has already arrived with capitalist guns a-blazin'. Her search is for the proper path through this strange new world and the only way to find the direction is to heed some age-old advice: "Follow the money."
But first Yella has to extricate herself from a sticky situation. In order to escape her abusive ex-husband she decides to leave home in the east of Germany (but no longer East Germany) for a new job in the west (but the West). Unfortunately, by a tremendous (and tremendously irritating) lapse in judgment she accepts a ride to the train station with her ex, with predictably bad results. She barely walks away from a terrible accident and makes her way to Hanover for her new job and, with it, her new life. Because our lives are, after all, defined by our jobs, aren't they? If you're not earning money, or helping other people earn money, you don't really exist.
Sadly the new job fizzles out, leaving Yella without an identity until she hooks up with a friendly businessman named Philipp (Devid Streisow) who hires her to act as his secretary for a difficult negotiation. "Yella" takes a strange turn as a large part of the second act consists of a series of detailed negotiations between a venture capitalist fund and a start-up business. Yella, initially hired to be a pretty face, proves remarkably apt at cutting through the bullshit and getting to the bottom line. As a hard-ass negotiator, she puts Philipp to shame. Like a Boy Named Sue, she's got the gravel in her guts and the spit in her eye, but that might not be enough in the new western (not West) Germany.
Directed by Christian Petzold, "Yella" (2007) is based, in part, on a short directed by the renowned filmmaker/writer Harun Farocki, one of Petzold's teacher. Farocki makes what are usually called "experimental documentaries" though placing them under the avant-garde umbrella would be misleading. The film that inspired "Yella" (and which is also included as an extra on the DVD) is "Nothing Ventured" and it is essentially a recorded business negotiation in which the two sides (corporation vs. VC fund) hammer out the details of their impending agreement. In Farocki's film, the key to greasing the wheels is not just numbers, though they are the final arbiter, but the awareness on both sides of mutual need. The love (or need) of money is the root of all capitalism.
"Yella" has a bizarre structure. We move from a drama of an abused women to a potentially dry record of a corporate negotiation that isn't dry at all. Unlike "Nothing Ventured," "Yella" focuses on the travails of its title character, filtering everything through her increasingly unreliable perspective. As if the corporate world wasn't weird and perilous enough, Yella stumbles through it all in a post-traumatic haze. She experiences auditory and possibly visual hallucinations. There are numerous instances in which she makes what appear to be monumentally stupid decisions (hey, I think I hear my abusive ex-husband out in the woods, let me go see if he's there) but there's always a question as to just how real anything she experiences is. While Yella is tapping away at her laptop she may just be losing her mind. Events become increasingly disjointed until the plot cracks apart at the seams and we find ourselves with one foot in the corporate world and one in the horror genre.
In the end, Yella's skills at her new job and her pedal-to-the-metal effort to hold things together even when her senses may be failing her aren't enough. She finds herself, like Eddie Constantine, back more or less where she started. No matter how much she wants it (money, freedom, whatever), there's always someone else who wants it more. Yella, like the unified Germany, is living in a "west" where matters are settled at the business end of a spreadsheet. And there's always someone who can re-calculate faster. "Bastards!"
The film is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Cinema Guild stepped in to fill part of the void left by the sudden and devastating dissolution of New Yorker films, and "Yella" is one of the films they are distributing through their new home video division. The interlaced transfer is probably a New Yorker effort with heavy instances of combing. The colors look a bit washed out to me, but it's hard to tell with the strange look director Petzold has achieved.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. Optional English subtitles support the German audio.
The only extra is a substantial one, the 50-minute short "Nothing Ventured" by Harun Farocki. The film served as the core around which "Yella" was loosely built. Farocki is an influential filmmaker and writer, and I'm not aware of any of his other films being available in Region 1 DVD. "Nothing Ventured" isn't a scintillating drama. As described above, it's a record of a deal being hammered out between a company and a venture capital fund. Complete with drinks afterward. I found it mesmerizing, but not particularly interesting, if that makes sense.
The DVD booklet features a detailed and insightful essay by film scholar Marco Abel. Credit where credit is due: Abel's excellent analysis helped me understand more about contemporary, unified Germany and informed some of my review.
"Yella" is a strange beast: a twisty, slightly surreal mystery wrapped around the tedious art of the business deal. The film has the creepy oneiric feel of a David Lynch film (particularly "Mulholland Drive") though without as much emphasis on the absurd. Everything is just a bit off-kilter. It makes for a disturbing and somewhat impenetrable experience that is engaging despite a disappointing ending.