Credit: Cinema Guild
by Morris Yang Featured Film Retrospective

Yella | Christian Petzold

June 1, 2021

The liminal sensibilities of Christian Petzold’s films accord their material spaces an air of contradiction: the gleaming surfaces of steel walls and glass doors exude preciousness and luxury — desirable qualities. But at the same time, it is this very preciousness and luxury that invokes a strangely alienating quality, forged by faceless producers for faceless consumers, that for all its Potemkin emulations of hospitality and convenience, resists the inaccessible kernel of authenticity it so desires to attain. Such is Petzold’s remarkable realization of Jacques Lacan: desire knows no object but “the desire of something else,” forever deferred; what the subject desires is less an object of desire but rather the possibility of desire itself. At the heart of the director’s filmography, from his television films to a mythological excavation bravely undertaken in his latest feature Undine, lies this perpetual theme, tethered to the screen just as it is to the social landscapes depicted on it. And Yella, the conclusion of the informally-designated Gespenster (German for “ghosts”) trilogy, articulates this through a literal dive into the murky depths of desire’s realm: fantasy. Operating outwardly as an aggressively materialistic study of corporate Germany, the film outlines and permeates this contemporary visage of a reunified economy with an acuity far beyond the myriad simulacra its cultural industry peddles each year in the name of historical and political realism.

Yella marks the second of five collaborations between Petzold and his leading actress, Nina Hoss. At once synonymous with his films and still somewhat apart from them, her presence teases a mysterious allure just out of grasp, more than just a stock heroine subjected to Petzold’s genre underpinnings. Hoss, playing the titular character, returns to her hometown of Wittenberg in what used to be East Germany; off to a new start in accountancy in the West, she bids farewell to her father and tries to shake off her menacing ex-husband, Ben (Hinnerk Schönemann), who claims she left him because of his dwindling prospects back home. (His construction firm’s survival banks on the building of an airport in a nearby city, until which he remains mired in debt.) But the past always outlives the future, and Yella, after accepting a ride from Ben to the train station, plunges into the river when Ben drives the car off a bridge; staggering into Hanover soaking-wet, she finds herself inexplicably marked. The sound of water fills her ears, birds caw jarringly, and trees rustle for only her to hear. Aside from these premonitions, her designated job is missing after her own boss is fired, and upon meeting with Philipp (Devid Striesow), a venture capitalist, she enters and experiences a new world altogether — one exemplary of Lacan’s liminal desire. In this world, money and capital are ascribed both symbols of journey and destination. Philipp confides in her a desire to stake in on a huge drill patent worth millions, as Yella looks on, envisioning the neoliberal endpoint of this desire: a suburban life of bourgeois comfort, children, and clockwork.

The biggest twist of Yella comes obvious to those acquainted with Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls, of which it serves as a remake. Petzold, however, does not merely transpose the latter’s structural design onto his new materialist blueprint, but instead utilizes it as conduit for interrogating the very ontology of this materialism. Much of the film’s liminality sets in during that pivotal moment of the accident, encroaching on a supernatural territory whose fundamental nature remains ambiguous until the very end (and arguably even beyond). Specters visible and invisible haunt Yella’s path to success; Ben appears frequently, a ghost-like figure stalking her in anticipation of her return home. But it is the film’s geographic shift that most strikingly announces the spectral intentions of Yella’s new reality: filmed on the skeletal remains of the city’s Expo 2000 site, Yella already parses from the blueprints of the future their logical conclusion — sleek but not secure, opulent but transient, liveable but never lively, and where capital is exchanged for cozy anonymity, Germany’s reunification and subsequent heralding of the neoliberal world order exemplifies the idealization, and not realization, of material desire. Yella and Philipp are always on the move from one meeting to another, in pursuit of a future that never arrives, that cannot arrive; after being shown the ropes around Philipp’s cutthroat business dealings, the former eagerly puts them into practice, embedding herself deep into an environment of capitalist abstraction involving balance sheets, accounting irregularities, offers, bribes, manipulations, and, above all, appearances. Having previously discussed and enacted a “broker pose” — in which one leans back, arms crossed around the head, while the other leans in to whisper something, thereby disarming the opponent’s concentration — the partners guffaw when another client tries the same stunt. “He strikes a pose, and we laugh at him,” comments Philipp, cognizant of its performative nature (“like young lawyers in lousy Grisham films”) but adhering to it nonetheless.

That Petzold foregrounds these sequences of drabness, transfiguring them into corporate thriller without indulging in the other conventions the genre entails — such as a definable villain, or a mission with its risks but also its tangible and definitive rewards — allows his work the necessary breadth to achieve a synthesis of aesthetic form and sociological content. Or perhaps, it is the other way around; by marrying the narrative trivialities of finance operations with a markedly clinical formal chassis, the resultant union capitulates to the possibilities of storytelling and fiction without compromising the reality these possibilities stem from. And therein lies the crux of Yella’s mercurial ontology. Without the former element, the film loses much of its potency and resigns itself to documentary; it is the realm of fantasy which cruelly teases the potential outcomes of Yella’s desire rather than those actual, non-existent ones before undermining even itself. That the film opts for a deterministic route isn’t at all surprising; the glass husks and forbidding dioramas of transactions have, from the very beginning, hedged against the fresh optimism Hoss exhibits upon setting foot in her hometown knowing she will soon be rid of it. Instead, by situating this determinism within Yella’s own projection of her desire, Petzold postulates Lacan’s formulation in starkly pessimistic terms. The future of neoliberalism manufactures desire but cannot satiate it, and if its own fantasy — whether premonition or dying vision — cannot sustain the illusion, then there is little hope for us. We will, like Yella, live out nightmares even among our dreams.

Part of Christian Petzold: In the Cut.