"Yella," an award winner at this year's German Film Academy Awards, is a picture from the M. Night Shyamalan school of theatrics, hinging on a climactic final twist. But whether characters in the film might be seeing dead people is beside the point in this expertly created thriller. Christian Petzold's film takes the all-too-ordinary fear of being caught by one's past and makes it as creepily unsettling as the supernatural forces lurking in Mr. Shyamalan's work.
Nina Hoss (who took best actress awards at the Berlin International Film Festival and the GFAAs) plays the title character, who is visiting her father in Wittenberge before leaving for a job try-out in Hanover. Since her arrival in Wittenberge, her obsessive, volatile ex-husband, Ben (Hinnerk Schoenemann), has been stalking and harassing her. Finally, Yella reluctantly agrees to let Ben escort her to the train station. Not surprisingly, it turns out to be a terrible idea when he takes the long way by veering his car off a bridge and into the River Elbe.
Nevertheless, she manages to make her way to Hanover, only to discover that her prospective boss has been fired and the job offer no longer stands. Out of desperation, she readily accepts temporary work assignments from Philipp (Devid Striesow), a venture capitalist whom she meets at the hotel. It turns out that Philipp is a white-collar con artist expert in exploiting contractual loopholes, and Yella soon discovers that she has a knack for this herself. But her past continues to haunt her in the form of Ben, who simply will not leave her alone.
The film serves as an allegory about former East Germans yearning to attain capitalist success, only to find disillusionment in an economic climate of mergers and layoffs. Mr. Petzold's intentions are admirable, but they may get lost in translation for those unfamiliar with Germany's geographical and political maps, which play major parts in the film's symbolism.
But though the sociopolitical message in "Yella" may be a bit obscure, the feelings conjured by the characters and the scenarios are starkly real and universal. Mr. Petzold, whose previous three feature films have not yet been released in America, shows himself to be a major talent. With a severe visual style that recalls the works of Michael Haneke, "Yella" stirs up the intense emotions that boil beneath clinical, placid settings such as meeting rooms, hotels, and country roadsides. The character of Yella and the film itself remain enigmatic throughout, but it's difficult not to get involved in all the twists and turns.