It is not always easy to cross a bridge. There may be hopes, dreams and ambitions to drive you forward, but then there are also second thoughts, backward glances, guilt-tinged regrets and nostalgic longings that keep drawing you back.
Yella (Nina Hoss) embodies this idea of a life in suspense. When we first catch sight of her, she is on a train crossing a bridge over a river, changing her clothes as though to underline a transition in her personal fortune. And yet she is coming back rather than going forward – returning from a job interview to settle affairs in her small home town in East Germany before moving onto what she hopes will be a new future in the West. She may be determined to embrace change, but it is difficult to leave her beloved father (Christian Redl) behind, and she still has mixed feelings about her ex-husband, failed businessman Ben (Hinnerk Schnemann) – even if he is now virtually stalking her.
But nothing will stop her. Even after a desperate Ben drives them both off the bridge into the river below, Yella emerges from the murky depths to make her appointment in Hanover – and although the new job falls through in an unexpectedly humiliating fashion, she soon finds herself working for Philipp (Devid Striesow), a forward-thinking venture capitalist (with some dubious business practices) who just happens to be staying in the same hotel. Yella discovers a talent for cutthroat negotiation, as well as a growing attraction to Philipp – but as she endeavours to work out what she really wants, neither Ben nor her past will so easily let her go.
Like In the Company of Men (1997) and Demonlover (2002) before it, Christian Petzold’s Yella uses Byzantine business deals, corporate shenanigans and sink-or-swim stakes to dramatise the internal negotiation of a character’s dreams and anxieties. The camerawork may be almost chillingly staid, the locations (all hotels, cars and meeting rooms) suggesting a limbo-like sterility, but below the cool surface there lurks a deep, overwhelming kind of melancholy.
Petzold has taken both the bridge setting, and the supernatural premise, of Ambrose Bierce’s much anthologised 1891 short story ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’, and updated it to the boardrooms and bedrooms of a new age of global capitalism, where the inhabitants of bygone soviet communities must either turn their backs on their history, or else find themselves forever trapped in ghost towns.
Anyone who has seen Jacob’s Ladder, A Pure Formality, The I Inside or Stay will know from early on where the more irrational elements in Yella (dislocated sounds, weird coincidences, a disorienting slippage of place) are headed – but far from investing everything in his climactic ‘big reveal’, Petzgold haunts the viewer from start to finish with a moody vision of a nation struggling to span its own internal divisions.